Australian writer Harry Nicolaides jailed for three years for insulting Thai Royal Family

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

File:King Bhumibol Adulyadej Portrait.jpg

Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
(Image missing from Commons: image; log)

Melbourne writer Harry Nicolaides, 41, was sentenced on Monday to three years imprisonment for defaming the Royal Family of Thailand. He had pled guilty to the lèse majesté indictment that arose from a self-published 2005 novel, Verisimilitude, of which only 50 copies were printed, and just seven sold. Meanwhile, yesterday, the Thai police charged a leading leftist political science professor, Dr. Giles Ji Ungpakorn, with lèse majesté.

The passage of concern, which comprised only 103 words or 12 lines, referred to a crown prince's love life. This allegedly insulted the lifestyle of H.R.H. Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, the only son of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit.

The Royal Family of Thailand is the current ruling house of the Kingdom of Thailand, the Head of the House of the King of Thailand. It is protected by law (Lèse majesté) from insult, with the charge carrying a maximum 15-year sentence.

"He has written a book that slandered the king, the crown prince of Thailand and the monarchy," the judge ruled. "He was found guilty under criminal law article 112 and the court has sentenced him to six years, but due to his confession, which is beneficial to the case, the sentence is reduced to three years," the judge explained.

Nicolaides earlier confessed to having slandered 81-year-old King Bhumibol and his son Vajiralongkorn. "I respect the King of Thailand. I was aware there were obscure laws (about the monarchy) but I didn't think they would apply to me," he tearfully said. He was arrested and detained at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport on August 31 as he tried to leave the country on a routine trip. Nicolaides was unaware of an arrest warrant issued on March 17, since he was not officially notified of the preliminary investigation.

Nicolaides had even sent copies of the published book to the Thai Ministry of Culture and Foreign Affairs, the national library and the Bureau of the Royal Household, for approval. In the decision, the Thai judge clarified that Nicolaides had placed the monarchy into disrepute, even obliquely, by his "reckless choice of words". The judgment cited a passage about the novel's fictional prince which caused "dishonour" to the royals and suggested an "abuse of royal power."

The fictional passage in question goes as follows:

From King Rama to the Crown Prince, the nobility was renowned for their romantic entanglements and intrigues. The crown prince had many wives, 'major and minor', with a coterie of concubines for entertainment. One of his recent wives was exiled with her entire family, including a son they conceived together, for an undisclosed indiscretion. He subsequently remarried another woman, and fathered another child. It was rumoured that if the prince fell in love with one of his minor wives, and she betrayed him, she and her family would disappear with their name, familial lineage and all vestiges of their existence expunged forever.
Verisimilitude, Harry Nicolaides

Nicolaides, who had worked in Thailand from 2003 to 2005 as a Chiang Rai university lecturer in hospitality and tourism, left the Bangkok court wearing a dark orange prison jumpsuit with his feet shackled. "This is an Alice-in-Wonderland experience. I really believe that I am going to wake up and all of you will be gone. I would like to apologise. This can't be real. It feels like a bad dream," said Nicolaides. He felt "dreadful," adding, "I wish my family the best."

Queen Sirikit of Thailand with Vladimir Putin in Kremlin, Moscow (July, 2007)

His brother Forde Nicolaides said Harry is not appealing but will request a Thai royal pardon. "We're devastated. You might be able to hear my mother crying in the background. It's quite devastating for us. The whole case has been a massive emotional ordeal that has consumed our entire family. It's beyond belief," Forde was reported as saying.

Nicolaides' family has attributed some blame to the Rudd government for its failure to intervene in the case. Forde criticized Foreign Minister Stephen Smith: "There is a huge expectation gap between what Australian citizens think the Australian government will do when they are in trouble overseas versus what they will do."

Harry's father Socrates Nicolaides, 83, delivered an appeal letter to Mr. Rudd last week. "I said to him, as one father to another father, please Mr. Prime Minister, I plead with you to do your utmost to do everything in your power to get Harry released," Mr. Nicolaides said. His wife Despina Nicolaides, 75, collapsed when she saw the video footage of her son. "He has just written a book," she said amid tears.

Despina Nicolaides said on Wednesday she appealed to King Bhumibol for a royal pardon, but her family has not received any reply from the Thai government. "We don't know when really it will be okay for Harry to be released - they don't say anything," she said. "I'm worrying sick. I hope that they will help us too like they did the Swiss people," she added.

According to Foreign Minister Smith, an Australian consular staff in Bangkok visited Nicolaides 25 times in prison. "We understand the anxiety that is being felt by Mr. Nicolaides and his family, however, he is subject to the legal and judicial processes of Thailand," the Smith's spokesman said. Moreover, Thai laws require a waiting period of 30 days from promulgation of the sentence before Nicolaides becomes eligible to apply for a Thai King's pardon.

I feel persecuted, to be honest... I want to be given a chance to apologise and explain.

—--Harry Nicolaides

Smith mentioned that he had forwarded the Federal Government's letter to Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya Monday for the Australian writer's pardon. "I raised Mr. Nicolaides' case with then Thai Foreign Minister Sompong when we met at APEC in November last year," Mr. Smith added.

Independent Senator Nicholas (Nick) Xenophon has called on the Australian Federal Government to exert pressure on Thailand for the early repatriation of Nicolaides who has already served five months in jail. He has been refused bail four times. Xenophon is a South Australian barrister, anti-gambling campaigner and No Pokies, independent in the South Australian Legislative Council.

"The imprisonment has taken a heavy toll on his physical and mental health. He has lost weight, he has been continually unwell for extended periods of time and obviously psychologically he has found the experience of being in prison in Thailand very challenging," his Australian lawyer, Mark Dean SC said. "Once that sentence is passed, if it's not a suspended sentence, then an application will be made for a royal pardon and we're hoping that that will be processed as quickly as possible," he added.

Acting Premier of Victoria, Justin Hulls said he has enquired about whether Victorian Government can provide assistance to Nicolaides. Hulls' legal team applied for a Thai royal pardon. His office has also communicated with lawyers of the case and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Nicholas (Nick) Xenophon.

According to Reporters Without Borders (RWB, or Reporters Sans Frontières), a Paris-based international non-governmental organization that advocates freedom of the press, the sentence imposed was "a serious violation of free expression." The group has expressed concern at the use of the Lèse majesté laws to suppress political discussion and dissenting voices.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, the Thai police filed a lèse majesté case against Dr. Giles Ji Ungpakorn, 55, a political science professor at Chulalongkorn University and Thailand's leading leftist political analyst. "The government, the prime minister, should order that they (the lese majeste laws) cease being used against people and that a whole review of the law should take place," Giles said.

The accusations against Giles stem from the publishing a 2007 anti-military coup book, 'A Coup for the Rich,' which can be downloaded free on his blog The 144-page critique is an academic textbook dealing with the Thailand political crisis 2005-2006, the bloodless coup of September 19, 2006 which overthrew former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Professor Ungpakorn's father Puey Ungpakorn was the Bank of Thailand's governor for 12 years and also a Thammasat University dean, and whose brother Jon Ungpakorn is a former senator.

Giles was duly informed of the charges at the central Pathum Wan Police Station. He was granted 20 days to file a sworn counter-statement to the police, who will then rule on whether to file formal charges in the courts for trial. "Lèse majesté is being used to destroy free speech," said Giles who denied the charges. "The lès majesté laws are there to protect the military and to protect governments that come to power through military action. They're not really about protecting the monarchy," he added.

The Thai people believe that King Bhumibol and the Thai Royal Family are semi-divine. Accordingly, insulting the monarchy is taken extremely seriously in Thailand. Justice Minister Pirapan Salirathavibhaga earlier vowed to impose tougher regulations to implement the laws. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, however, announced last week that he was trying to "strike the balance between upholding the law and allowing freedom of expression." Pirapan has reported that more than 10,000 websites have similar criminal contents.

Sulak Sivaraksa.

The Thai government had already blocked about 4,000 websites, including 2,300 websites recently, for alleged violations of lèse majesté law. As of last week, more than 17 criminal cases of insulting the royal family were still pending. About 400 more websites await a court restraining order, according to Information and Communication (ICT) Minister Ranongruk Suwanchawee.

Lèse majesté cases have been filed against several people, including Chotisak On-soong, Jitra Kotchadej, Darunee Charnchoengsilpakul, Suwicha Thakhor, Sondhi Limthongkul, and social activists like Sulak Sivaraksa who were charged in the 1980s and 1990s. The King, however, has routinely granted pardons to most people jailed for lèse majesté. In March 2007, Swiss national Oliver Jufer was convicted of lèse majesté and sentenced to 10 years for spray-painting on several portraits of the king while drunk in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Jufer was pardoned by the king on April 12, 2007.

In March 2008, Police Colonel Watanasak Mungkijakarndee filed a similar case against Jakrapob Penkhair for comments made in a Foreign Correspondents' Club (FCCT) event in August 2007. In 2008 BBC south-east Asia correspondent Jonathan Head was accused of lèse majesté three times by Colonel Watanasak Mungkijakarndee. In the most recent case Watanasak filed new charges highlighting a conspiracy connecting Jonathan Head to Veera Musikapong at the FCCT.

Canberra Thai Embassy Minister counselor, Saksee Phromyothi, on Wednesday defended the country's harsh lèse majesté, saying that, "under Thailand's constitution, the king was above politics and was prevented from publicly defending himself from personal attacks." Mr. Saksee explained that "99 per cent of foreigners convicted under this law get pardoned and then we deport them."