Though the verdict means 73-year-old Bandhit Aniya, the defendant who is out on bail, is now a free man, human rights activists pointed out he is still considered to have committed the crime but was freed because of his mental illness.
Mr Bandhit’s sympathisers who turned up at the Bangkok South Criminal Court yesterday congratulated him after the Supreme Court handed down its ruling.
The self-taught writer and translator, who has published books critical of what he sees as Thailand’s rigid social hierarchy, was excited. "I have never seen so many people lending me solidarity like this," Mr Bandhit said.
Mr Bandhit had prepared a small bag containing his personal belongings and medicine should the court rule against him. Before the ruling he told observers from human rights groups, such as the Internet Law for Citizens, the Union for Civil Liberties and the Asian Human Rights Commission, that he was ready to die in prison.
He compared his fate to that of Ampon Tangnoppakul, a lese majeste defendant who died in a prison hospital of liver cancer in May 2013 while lawyers were preparing to appeal his case.
Mr Bandhit, who is also a cancer patient, had spent 98 days in jail while fighting the case which was filed against him in 2003. However, he was fortunate to get bail which allowed him to receive an operation for his bladder cancer.
On Sept 22, 2003, during an academic seminar organised by the Election Commission and the Constitutional Court on political parties as an institution, Mr Bandhit expressed his opinions in a speech and in written documents which were later found to be insulting to the monarchy. The Criminal Court found Mr Bandhit guilty on two counts of lese majeste and jailed him for four years.
However, the court believed he suffered from schizophrenia and therefore suspended the sentence. Later on, the Appeal Court came to the conclusion that Mr Bandhit was fully aware and capable of controlling himself while committing the offence. The Appeal Court then ruled the suspension of the sentence should be dismissed.
But since the defendant admitted he wrote the document and made the speech, the court reduced the sentence to two years and eight months.
The Supreme Court ruling yesterday cited the testimony of a psychiatrist who concluded that Mr Bandhit suffered a psychotic illness that affected his mental capacity, although he seemed like a normal person. "The illness is categorised as a psychiatric problem under the Criminal Code’s Section 65; therefore, he was not aware of the crime," the Supreme Court ruling stated.
His is one of only a few lese majeste cases to have reached the Supreme Court. In November last year, a Chon Buri politician was given a two-year suspended jail term for insulting King Mongkut in a radio talk show, causing an outcry among critics of the Criminal Code’s Section 112 that deals with lese majeste.
Currently, only two lese majeste prisoners — Daranee Charncherngsilapakul and Somyot Preuksakasemsuk — are awaiting Supreme Court rulings.
Recently, the military has also threatened to file a lese majeste case against outspoken scholar Somsak Jeamteerasakul, raising concerns among local and international human rights groups.
The Asian Human Rights Commission reminded the Thai government that it is a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which guarantees the rights to political freedom and freedom of expression.
“In this case, part of upholding the ICCPR means protecting those whose views are dissident and ensuring that they can safely exercise their political freedom,” said the Hong Kong-based AHRC regarding historian Mr Somsak, who has made some remarks concerning the monarchy.