BANGKOK – A Thai-born US citizen jailed for insulting the king has been pardoned by the monarch, in a case that drew a protest from the United States.
Joe Wichai Commart Gordon, whose Thai name is Lerpong Wichaikhammat, a car salesman from Colorado, was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in December under the kingdom’s strict lese majeste laws, which rights campaigners say are used unfairly to stifle freedom of expression.
Gordon “was granted a royal pardon yesterday”, a senior Corrections Department official told AFP on Wednesday. Bangkok Remand Prison said he left the jail late Tuesday.
The 55-year-old was arrested in May during a visit to Thailand and accused of posting material deemed offensive online — an unauthorised biography of King Bhumibol Adulyadej that he translated into Thai — while living in the US.
His conviction drew a protest from the US, which said he was exercising his right to free speech.
Gordon’s release comes just days before a planned meeting between Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at a US business forum in Cambodia.
“We are pleased that US citizen Joe Gordon was granted a royal pardon which allows him to be released from prison,” said US embassy official Walter Braunohler.
“We urge Thai authorities on a regular basis both privately and publicly to ensure that freedom of expression is protected in accordance with international obligations.”
Gordon was taken to the US embassy on his release, according to his lawyer Anon Numpa.
He said Gordon was one of four prisoners who have sought royal pardons in lese majeste cases, but so far only his case has been approved.
Under Thailand’s lese majeste legislation, anyone convicted of insulting the King, Queen, heir or regent faces up to 15 years in prison on each count.
Gordon was initially sentenced to five years in prison, but the Criminal Court halved the term because he had pleaded guilty to publishing the banned biography online.
Speaking to AFP in prison just hours before his release on Tuesday, Gordon said he had heard that he could be freed but could not quite believe it.
“It’s good… I had heard that yesterday,” he said. “But it could still be a rumour.”
The royal family is a highly sensitive topic in politically turbulent Thailand.
Gordon’s conviction put the international spotlight on Thailand’s increasingly controversial lese majeste prosecutions, which observers say have surged following a coup that removed fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra from office in 2006.
In May a Thai online editor was handed a suspended jail term for failing to act quickly enough to remove a comment critical of the revered monarchy on her website, prompting search engine giant Google to issue a stark warning over Internet freedom in the kingdom. She faces decades in jail a separate case that has yet to be tried.
Scrutiny of the law has intensified since the death of a 62-year-old Thai man this month while serving a 20-year prison sentence for committing lese majeste.