Police lèse majesté “experts” in Prachatai trial

A capacity crowd of supporters filled the lèse majesté trial of Chiranuch Premchaiporn, webmaster of Thailand’s independent online news portal Prachatai, which continued into its seventh day at Bangkok’s Criminal Court. Yesterday’s animated senior judge, The Honourable Kampol Rungrat, was joined by a second.

An affable police major-general, Suraphon Tuanphong, was today’s first witness for the prosecution. The major-general described himself to the court as an expert at deciphering lèse majesté from coded phrases on the Internet.

The witness is vice-secretary of the Royal Thai Police working group on lèse majesté. Even though he missed the group’s meeting on Prachatai, he felt confident in his courtroom presentation.

Suraphon stated that one of the comments to Prachatai’s webboard for which Chiranuch has been charged was critical of ‘Mama Blue Diamond’ attending the funeral of a PAD protester who was killing in political clashes. He stated it obviously described the Queen and that ‘flower palace’ meant the Royal residence, Chitralada, and ‘Nai 04’ referred to the Crown Prince, heir to Thailand’s throne.

The police officer considered these codewords to be ‘inappropriate’ and insulting to the Royal family. He stated that ‘police have a duty to prosecute’ in such cases because political conflict could easily escalate from influence of the Internet. However, such comments appeared not only on Prachatai but on many other websites.

In responce to defence cross-examination, Major-General Suraphon admitted that netizens using Prachatai were by no means in universal agreement over such comments and that they generated much discussion both positive and negative. However, the police working group reached the conclusion in December 2008 that if “Bento” should be prosecuted for her comments, so should Prachatai.

However, the police found no collaboration between “Bento”, the only commenter for be prosecuted, unsuccessfully, for lèse majesté comments, and Chiranuch as webmaster of Prachatai. The witness conceded that posters may not even have written the comments themselves but could have been copied from other sources.

Suraphon also noted that users of Prachatai’s webboard requested that such comments be removed on many occasions and that the website universally complied with such requests. However, he felt that the webmaster must be responsible for such content.

The honourable judge immediately opined that ‘anyone would know’ these codewords refer to the Royals. But he questioned whether the comments were actually insulting and does a webmaster bear co-responsibility for them.

The judge summarily dismissed a second prosecution witness, the new secretary of the police working group on lèse majesté, saying that it was unnecessary for the court to hear from every single person who had worked on the Prachatai case.

As this courtroom theatre develops, we all must bear in mind that one brave journalist is facing 20 years in prison for comments not her own.

Chiranuch’s resumes next week, on Tuesday, September 6 at Bangkok’s Criminal Court (San Aya) on Ratchadapisek Road near Lat Phrao MTR station, Exit 4. The trial is being heard in courtroom 910 but the case docket number is 1167/2553 in case the courtroom venue changes.

Prosecution witnesses will be heard September 6, 7, 8, 9, 20, 21 and defence witnesses October 11, 12, 13, 14.

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