A US citizen was released from a Thai prison Tuesday on a royal pardon that commuted a two-and-a-half-year sentence for defaming the Thai royal family. Thai-born Joe Gordon (Thai name Lerpong Wichaikhammat), 55, is a Colorado used-car salesman who was arrested [BBC report] last May while vacationing in Thailand because several years earlier he had translated and posted online excerpts of a locally banned biography of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Gordon pleaded guilty to violating Section 112 of the Thai Penal Code [text], the lese majeste law: "Whoever, defames, insults or threatens the King, the Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years." Gordon had translated into Thai and then posted excerpts of the biography, The King Never Smiles by Paul Handley, on a blog while living in the US. The original sentence was for five years imprisonment, but judges halved the term after Gordon pleaded guilty. Bhumibol, 84, is the world's longest-reigning monarch and sitting head of state. The US has pushed Thai authorities for Gordon's release [Al Jazeera report] since his arrest last year, but no official reason for the royal pardon has been put forth.
Gordon was sentenced in December [JURIST report] after pleading guilty in October. UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression Frank La Rue [official website] recently condemned the lese majeste law [JURIST report] shortly after the guilty plea was submitted: "The threat of a long prison sentence and vagueness of what kinds of expression constitute defamation, insult, or threat to the monarchy, encourage self-censorship and stifle important debates on matters of public interest, thus putting in jeopardy the right to freedom of opinion and expression. ... This is exacerbated by the fact that the charges can be brought by private individuals and trials are often closed to the public." In 2009 Amnesty International (AI) [advocacy website] called for a public trial [JURIST report] for a Thai political activist accused of lese majeste. In 2009 a Thai court sentenced an anti-coup protestor to 18 years in prison. Shortly afterward Awzar Thi, a member of the Asian Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong, wrote that in enforcing the law the Thailand judiciary was discrediting itself [JURIST comment] "in its hurry to defend increasingly outdated social arrangements."