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American gets 2 1/2 years in prison for defaming Thai king

December 7, 2011 | 10:54 pm

 

REPORTING FROM BANGKOK, THAILAND -- A U.S. citizen on Thursday received a 2 1/2-year prison sentence for insulting Thailand's king, prompting the American Embassy to issue a rare rebuke, saying that the punishment was too harsh and was a violation of free-speech rights.

The case involving Thailand's controversial lese majeste laws was complicated by citizenship and jurisdiction issues. The violation by Thai-born Lerpong Wichaikhammat, 55, involving an Internet posting deemed disrespectful, was written several years ago while he was living in Colorado.

In addition to his blog writings, Lerpong was accused of posting a Web link to a banned site featuring an unofficial biography of the king. Lerpong, whose American name is Joe Gordon, was arrested in May while visiting Thailand for medical treatment. He pleaded guilty to the charges in October.

Thailand has some of the world's toughest lese majeste, or "injured majesty," laws protecting its extremely popular monarch, Bhumibol Adulyadej, 84. In recent years, the number of cases has jumped and sentences have become tougher. Critics and political scientists argue that the laws violate free expression and are often used by people close to the ailing monarch who are trying to protect their own interests or undermine rivals during a period of political turbulence.

Lerpong faced a five-year prison sentence, but the judge cut it in half because he had pleaded guilty.

Elizabeth Pratt, consul general with the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, told reporters that Washington considered the sentence "severe because he has been sentenced for his right to freedom of expression."

"We continue to have full support for the Thai monarchy but will also continue to support the right to freedom of expression, which is an international human right," she said.

Foreigners convicted of violating the lese majeste laws are frequently given tough sentences that are subsequently pardoned by the king. Lerpong's lawyer told the Reuters news service that his client plans on filing a pardon request in a month.

"In Thailand, they put people in jail without proof," Lerpong told reporters Thursday in court. "I was born in Thailand, but this does not mean I am Thai. I am proud to be an American citizen."

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-- Mark Magnier and Simon Roughneen

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