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Web developer's 13-year sentence highlights trend of targeting messenger

Thailand's criminal court has sentenced a web designer to 13 years in jail, 10 of them for lèse majesté - insulting the monarchy - and three for violating the country's stiff computer crime laws, the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) and ARTICLE 19 report.

Thantawut Thaweewarodomkul, a web designer for Nor Por Chor USA, has been detained without bail since 1 April 2010. He was charged for posting offensive messages in March 2010, and, as web administrator, for failure to immediately remove an offensive message.

His case echoes the now emblematic story of Chiranuch Premchaiporn, executive director of the Thailand-based independent news website Prachatai. Chiranuch stands accused of 10 different violations of the country's draconian 2007 Computer Crime Act, each of which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison. Her case has been postponed until September.

The case centres on comments posted by anonymous users of a Prachatai web forum that authorities have charged were defamatory of the Thai monarchy. She is the first webmaster to be charged under section 15 of the act, which is about the liability of Internet service providers, webmasters and other online intermediaries.

Both cases highlight the many vague national security provisions of the Computer Crime Act and the regional trend of targeting online intermediaries in attempts to control the flow of information on the Internet, say SEAPA and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Prachatai suspended all of its online forums in July 2010.

ARTICLE 19 is also concerned about the act's requirement that all Internet service providers collect Internet traffic stats about their users' activities, which was used as evidence in the trials. "This is a violation of both the Thai Constitution and international law protecting personal life and data," said ARTICLE 19.

According to CPJ, in a December report, Thailand's iLaw Project said the government ordered 38,868 websites and web pages blocked in 2010 for publishing anti-royal content. Overall, the government took down 44,000 web addresses, including Prachatai, the group said.

The website Political Prisoners in Thailand estimates that the country's computer crimes law has been used against more than 300 offenders since 2006, when the military, in a royalist coup, ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

But recent court decisions could work in favour of the webmasters, says CPJ. On 31 January, a Thai court ruled in favour of a woman accused of posting anti-royal messages onto a Prachatai board due to lack of evidence. A similar Computer Crime Act case against another Thai site, Pantip, was thrown out on 29 December.

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