Bangkok (AFP) - Rights groups Wednesday lambasted a Thai military court which jailed a businessman for 25 years for making allegedly defamatory Facebook posts about the monarchy, one of the toughest known sentences for lese majeste.
The sentencing of Theinsutham Suthijittaseranee, 58, comes as concerns mount over a bid by the nation's junta leader to replace martial law -- that has blanketed the kingdom for months -- with new security measures retaining sweeping powers for the military.
Theinsutham was sentenced Tuesday to 10 years for each of five counts of posting messages on the social networking website deemed to be defamatory to the Thai royal family, his lawyer Sasinan Thamnithinan told AFP.
The sentence was halved because the defendant pleaded guilty, but is still among the toughest yet for insulting the monarchy.
"The 25-year sentence is one of the harshest we are aware of. It is particularly problematic given that it was issued by a military tribunal," Sam Zarifi, regional director for legal rights group the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), told AFP.
"Given the defendant's age, it comes close to being a life sentence."
Amnesty International condemned the conviction as "preposterous" and called for an end to lese majeste prosecutions, which have surged since royalist generals toppled the remnants of the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra last May.
Domestic and international media routinely self-censor reporting of the monarchy, including royal defamation trials, lest they too are hit by the draconian law, which carries up to 15 years in jail for every count of insulting, defaming or threatening the monarchy.
Critics of the law say it is used as a weapon against the political enemies of the royalist elite.
An ICJ tally 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.
- 'Descent into dictatorship' -
Freedom of expression and dissent have been smothered by martial law imposed by the junta since last year's coup.
On Tuesday Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha said he had asked the revered but elderly king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, for permission to lift martial law.
But rights groups have expressed alarm at Prayut's move to replace it with sweeping security powers under Section 44 of an interim constitution.
Under the section, Prayut can unilaterally issue orders to suppress "any act that undermines public peace and order or national security, the monarchy, national economics or the administration of state affairs".
Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said it effectively grants the junta leader unfettered power and "will mark Thailand's deepening descent into dictatorship".
The UN special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, also expressed "strong concerns" about the new section Wednesday as well as the increasing lese majeste arrests and detentions.
Addressing hundreds of civil servants in Bangkok earlier as part of Thailand's national Civil Service Day, Prayut defended Section 44.
"It was written to give powers to the prime minister without issuing laws. It does not mean we will take power away from people. If I use this power in the wrong way, don't you think I will be ashamed?" he said.
Thailand has been mired in political turmoil since populist politician Thaksin Shinawatra was toppled by a coup in 2006.
The Bangkok elite -- along with the military and swathes of the judiciary -- has spent the intervening years trying to unpick the electoral success of parties linked to Thaksin -- culminating in last year's coup.
The army says it had to intervene to end bloody protests against the Shinawatra clan. It accused the family of poisoning Thailand with corruption and cronyism and duping people in their rural poor heartlands with populist policies.