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A Thai engineer who allegedly sent online pictures that offended the royal family has been sentenced to 10 years in jail, report the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), ARTICLE 19, Index on Censorship and English PEN.

Suwicha Thakhor was arrested in January and held in custody until his conviction on 3 April of lese majeste for material he posted which was deemed to have defamed the monarchy.

According to SEAPA, Suwicha, a father of three, had been working as a control engineer for an oil rig company when he was arrested in his hometown of Nakhon Phanom in the northeast. He was fired the following day for "damaging the company's reputation," reports SEAPA.

Suwicha's conviction, said SEAPA chairman Kavi Chongkittavorn, "would imbed a culture of fear deeper into Thai society."

Thailand's charge of lese majeste, which can be used against anyone who defames, insults or threatens the King or royal family, is among the most severe in the world, carrying a possible three- to 15-year prison term.

In a letter to the King of Thailand, ARTICLE 19, English PEN and Index on Censorship wrote, "This is an extremely harsh sentence. We are deeply concerned about the routine use of lese majeste to silence criticism and dissent in Thailand. We ask that Suwicha Thakhor be pardoned, and that the Thai authorities repeal a law that is chilling free speech."

According to the IFEX members, charges of lese majeste have increased dramatically since the September 2006 coup which deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. For instance, in January 2009, Australian writer Harry Nicolaides was sentenced to three years' imprisonment but was later pardoned by the King. In February, an arrest warrant was issued for Thai-British academic Giles Ji Ungpakorn for his book, "A Coup for the Rich", which criticised the 2006 military coup. Giles fled the country to avoid imprisonment.

The Ministry of Information and Communication Technology claims to have shut down more than 2,000 websites alleged to have contained material that insults the monarchy. And on 23 January, the Senate set up an extraordinary committee to oversee the blocking of further sites, warning that over 10,000 could be targeted.

Visit these links:
- Father of three gets 10-year prison term for emailing material offensive to Thai royalty (SEAPA):
- Blogger Suwicha Thakhor sentenced to 10 years in prison (ARTICLE 19/Index/English PEN):
(8 April 2009)

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