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Thailand: Grandfather Serving Lese Majeste Sentence Dies in Prison

The death of Ampon Tangnopponkul, known locally as “Akong”, is described by many Thai netizens as a shame for Thailand. Akong was sentenced to 20 years in jailed for an unproven lese majeste case. The 61-year-old grandfather, who had long battled with oral cancer, was believed to have died as a result of this disease.

Attempts to get bail for Akong, most notably due to his illness, was repeatedly denied. Campaigns by activists and scholars in Thailand and abroad to free Ampon, while rallied substantial popular support, did not alter his situation. This case was hailed as one of “the most severe lese majeste convictions yet recorded.”

Akong with his family. Photo from FACT – Freedom Against Censorship Thailand

Akong with his family. Photo from FACT – Freedom Against Censorship Thailand

This bizarre and tragic story began in August 2010 when Akong was arrested in his home and detained without charge for two months. In January 2011, he was finally charged for sending four SMS messages deemed offensive to the monarchy to then prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's personal secretary and other cabinet members. Akong denied such charges.

During the trial, Ampon admitted not knowing how to send SMS messages and that he did not recognize the numbers belonging to the receivers. He wept throughout the entire ordeal and repeated his love for the king.

Judge Chanatip Mueanpawong clarified the verdict:

The prosecution could not produce a witness to definitively confirm that the defendant was the one sending the messages to the plaintiff's phone. It was difficult to present compelling evidence because the defendant, who committed such acts, would naturally conceal his actions so that others could not observe them. As such it is necessary to rely on circumstantial evidence to indicate the defendant's intentions.

Akong was sentenced to 20 years in prison, 5 years for each SMS message sent.

The mobile phone messages were alleged by the authorities to have contained vulgar language defaming the queen and insulting the honor of the monarchy. According to iLaw, the police relied on phone log by service provider and police witnesses to convict Akong.

The Office of the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission agrees the case was circumstantial at best and warns mobile phone users to be especially mindful of their phone activity.

While in custody, the Court of Appeals repeatedly denied Ampon bail, citing the severity of the case as a threat to national security and possibility of his flight.

The death of “Uncle SMS” elicited strong, and polarized, reaction in the cyber community – many were outraged, while some cheerful. Poltahan Manoke Klang Prapan wrote on Facebook:

I wish this country would see justice and freedom, but I could only wish. I wish the ignorant would see the light, but I could only dream. I guess I would have to put up with this reality. After all death is inevitable.

Piangkam Pradabkwan composed a poem on her Facebook page, whose last verse was:

Akong is dead. Who killed the old man? Justice came too late – this is a crime. Human lives are cheap and abundant. They breathe and smell death every day.

Others weren't so upset about the passing of Akong:

“Please make merit for the old man. By now he's probably in hell with fire burning in his mouth,” major181226 responded to the Youtube clip about Akong. “He deserved to die. Our land would now be elevated. When the color ordeal is over, our country could progress. Or don't you agree?” posted Purno5.

On Twitter,‏ @supinya expressed her sadness:

Rest in Peace for Uncle SMS, speechless as always. Sadness from both angles; humanity&human rights. My condolence to his family & friends.

Bangkok Pundit asks why a senior citizen with cancer was viewed by the state as threat to national security:

It is hard to know whether he would have received better treatment outside the prison as we don’t know for sure the cause of death, but having cancer while living on Thai prison food and being reliant on the prison hospital are unlikely to be factors in helping you live longer. The extent though is unclear and will never be known. Nevertheless, one does wonder how much of a national security threat a man in his 60s with cancer is that he needs to be locked up in jail?

For many citizens, the Akong case was about injustice and mistreatment of prisoners. They feel Thailand failed as a society to put political differences aside when faced with such gross human rights violations.

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