BANGKOK (Reuters) - A Thai court handed an eight-month suspended sentence on Wednesday to a website editor for failing to quickly remove posts deemed offensive to the monarchy in a case that adds to growing debate over Thailand's draconian royal censorship laws.
The Bangkok Criminal Court ruled posts on the Prachatai news website (www.prachatai.com) were offensive to the royal family and that its editor, Chiranuch Premchaiporn, failed to remove them promptly, as requested by the court, allowing at least one to stay online for 20 days.
Thailand has some of the world's toughest lese majeste laws to penalise insults against the king, queen and crown prince, but critics say the legislation is used to discredit activists and politicians opposed to the royalist establishment.
Chiranuch, 44, was charged in 2010 in a crackdown on royal defamation under former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, whose supporters include Bangkok's traditional elite of top generals, royal advisers, middle-class bureaucrats and old-money families.
She faced a maximum 20 years in jail on 10 counts of supporting illegal content and violating the Computer Crimes Act, a controversial and wide-ranging law passed by a military-installed legislature following a 2006 coup.
The suspended sentence is a rare moment of leniency in a series of tough and highly criticised decisions by courts to protect the monarchy, an effort that has increased during what many see as the twilight of the reign of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Thailand's long-hospitalised 84-year-old monarch.
"For someone involved in a lese-majeste content issue, this was a comparatively reasonable sentence," said David Streckfuss, a scholar and expert on Thailand's lese-majeste laws.
Many Thais revere the king, the world's longest-ruling monarch, and regard him as a unifying figure, but national unease over what follows his reign has added to recent political turbulence.
Deadly street riots, mob takeovers of airports and a coup in recent years reveal a country divided broadly between a yellow-shirted royalist elite and lower-income red-shirted supporters of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, toppled in 2006.
PROTEST TO PARLIAMENT
Tension surfaced on Wednesday when about 3,000 yellow-shirted protesters marched to parliament, protesting legislation they say would whitewash Thaksin, a graft-convicted former telecoms tycoon who lives abroad to avoid jail.
Although his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, was elected prime minister last year on a wave of support from the red-shirted supporters who revere her populist brother, she has said she has no plan to revise royal insult laws or stop authorities who have blocked thousands of Web pages deemed insulting to the monarch.
"It was found that the content posted on Prachatai's website did indeed cause damage to the reputation of the king, queen and heir apparent," Judge Kampol Rungrat told the court, adding that Chiranuch had a duty to take care of offensive content.
The court sentenced Chiranuch to eight months in prison but suspended the term for one year because she had cooperated.
Chiranuch said she might lodge an appeal and warned that publishers could not be expected to censor themselves.
"The verdict is acceptable but it is not what I would have wanted," she told reporters. "The law requires intermediaries like myself to act as police when monitoring online content, this is something that needs to be looked in to."
Prachatai's web board was shut down two years ago and Chiranuch said she would think hard before reopening the site.
A group of university lecturers filed a petition with parliament on Tuesday, calling for an amendment to the law, known as Article 112, part of a movement of academics, journalists and activists pressing for more freedom of speech.
This month, Amphon Tangnoppaku, 61, died in jail after being sentenced last November to 20 years for sending text messages defaming and threatening Queen Sirikit. The evidence was felt by many to be flimsy and he denied the charge, saying he did not even know how to send a text message.
(Editing by Martin Petty, Jason Szep and Robert Birsel)