Thai bookseller given jail term for royal defamation

Bangkok (AFP) - A Thai man was sentenced Wednesday to two years in jail for selling books that allegedly defamed the monarchy, the latest in a string of convictions under a notorious lese majeste law.

The Court of Appeals overturned a 2014 court decision which had cleared Udomsak Wattanaworachaiwathin of any wrongdoing in a case that stretches back nine years.

The grey-haired 66-year-old was initially arrested in May 2006 for selling two books that allegedly defamed Thailand's revered but ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej, during a protest in a Bangkok park.

But prosecutors only filed charges against him seven years later, according to iLaw, a local legal group that monitors lese majeste cases.

A criminal court dismissed the charges in March 2014 after ruling that the prosecution had failed to prove that Udomsak knew the content of the books was defamatory of the monarch, now aged 87.

Prosecutors then appealed the ruling, resulting in Wednesday's conviction.

"The defendant's behaviour has shown that he knew the book had insulting details about the monarchy, and he could not prove the two copies he sold belonged to other people as he had claimed," the judge said.

But the judge said she decided to reduce the sentence from three to two years because of "useful testimony" by Udomsak.

Thailand's monarchy is protected by one of the world's harshest lese majeste laws and the country's ultra-royalist military junta has significantly ramped up prosecutions since seizing power in a coup last May.

- 'Maintain the monarchy' -

Under Section 112 of the criminal code anyone convicted of insulting the king, queen, heir or regent faces up to 15 years in prison on each count.

"The most important thing is to maintain the monarchy. We have the law for it. We have to protect and uphold the institution," former army chief and now Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan told reporters.

"All authorities and all civil servants... also all people must help to forever maintain and protect the monarchy."

Earlier this month a military court jailed a 58-year-old man for 25 years for a series of Facebook posts that allegedly defamed the monarchy, a sentence that received widespread international condemnation including from the UN.

Reporting lese majeste cases is fraught with difficulty and media must heavily self-censor. Even repeating details of the charges could mean breaking the law.

Critics of the law say it is used as a weapon against political enemies of the royalist elite.

The International Commission of Jurists, which also monitors cases, says at least 49 people have fallen foul of the royal defamation rules since the coup, including those investigated, detained, convicted or awaiting verdicts.

Twenty-two of those cases have been tried in military courts whose verdicts can not be appealed.

Udomsak showed no emotion as the verdict was read out. His lawyer Yaowalak Anuphan they would appeal to the Supreme Court.

"We are confident he is innocent, he really had no idea about the (contents of the) book," she told AFP.

Udomsak's request for bail pending his appeal to the Supreme Court was denied but the judge said the higher court could decide whether to grant bail in coming days.