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Ex-prime minister's sentence further entrenches criminal defamation and deepens threat to freedom of expression in Thailand, says SEAPA

(SEAPA/IFEX) - Thailand's Court of Appeals upheld a two-year jail term on former Thailand Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej for defaming a former deputy city governor, media reports said.

Samak, who stepped down in early September 2008 after another court found him guilty of conflict of interest, and his co-defendant, former senator Dusit Siriwan, were found guilty of defaming Samart Ratchapolsitte during their TV talk shows between 12 and 19 January 2006. According to Reuters, a judge reading the verdict on 25 September said there was no reason to suspend jail terms handed down by the Criminal Court.

The Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) is expressing concern over the penalty of imprisonment meted out against the former prime minister. While the Samak defamation decision will have to be taken within the larger political contexts in Thailand, SEAPA believes that meting out a jail sentence for defamation will only further entrench criminal defamation in Thailand, further growing an existing threat to freedom of expression. While there are accepted limits to free speech, the penalty of imprisonment for defamation is excessive against any person, in any context. The criminal defamation case against Samak -or any other personality- will have implications beyond the personalities directly involved. It will set a chilling standard by which all Thai citizens, including journalists, writers, and oppositionists, will now also be held by.

"The defendants made libellous remarks on four occasions, which showed their intent to cause damage to the plaintiff. After considering what the defendants have done, there is no reason to withhold their penalty," the judge said.

The court cited that Samak, who has been found guilty of defaming others in three cases, had "shown no remorse."

Samak and Dusit expressed no emotion when the verdict was announced. They later made their exit through a side door, avoiding the hundreds of reporters waiting at the main gate.

Both defendants posted a bail of 200,000 Baht each (approx. US$6,000), according to their lawyer Prachum Thongmee.

"We are trying to get permission from either the court or the attorney-general to appeal to the Supreme Court within the legal window of 30 days," Prachum said.

Being a member of parliament, Samak would still be able to stay out of jail, at least until November when the House of Representatives ends its session.

Samak and Dusit implicated Samart during the talk shows broadcast on Channel 5 and Channel 9, in irregularities in the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration's construction projects. According to the "Bangkok Post", the two implied that Samart bought a Series 7 BMW with money received as a kickback.

Samart said he would still file a 100-million Baht (approx. US$2.9 million) compensation lawsuit against Samak and Dusit.

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