Lese majeste: Thailand's most controversial law, explained

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  • Lese majeste is the crime of insulting the royal family
  • The number of cases in Thailand has "skyrocketed" in recent years

Hong Kong (CNN)The crime of lese majeste -- insulting the royal family -- is a law enforced by monarchies around the globe. But few are stricter than Thailand.

Thailand stipulates harsh punishments for defaming or insulting the king or senior royals, and critics say it has stifled much needed debate over the country's future.
    Even someone in whose name it's invoked in has questioned it. King Bhumibol Adulyadej said in 2005 that "if the King can do no wrong, it is akin to looking down upon him, because the King is not being treated as a human being."
    But that hasn't stopped there being a huge spike in prosecutions in the last decade, with more than 400 cases in 2010 alone, according to Human Rights Watch.

    Where does the law come from?

    Lese majeste (lez majest-ay) comes from the Latin laesa maiestas, or "injured majesty." Though it has become increasingly associated with Thailand in recent years, the crime dates back to the Roman Republic, and was massively expanded during the reign of Emperor Tiberius (14-37 AD), according to historian Theodor Mommsen.
    Countries as diverse as the Netherlands, Norway and Jordan all still have laws against lese majeste.
    The law was added to Thailand's Criminal Code in 1908, and was expanded after a military coup in 1976 to make it illegal to defame, insult or threaten the king, queen, heir-apparent or regent, said David Streckfuss, author of "Truth on Trial in Thailand."
    "The number of cases started going up in 2005," Streckfuss said, before "skyrocketing" in the early 2010s.
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    What are the punishments?

    Those found guilty of lese majeste can be jailed for between three and 15 years for each count, with some sentences stretching to 60 years.
    Since 2007, extra protections have been enshrined in the constitution, with Article 8 staying that "the King shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall not be violated. No person shall expose the King to any sort of accusation or action."
    Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has defended lese majeste as required to protect the monarchy, saying in 2014 that "his majesty is not in a position to respond or explain."
    The law "is not aimed at curbing people's rights to freedom of expression nor the legitimate exercise of academic freedom, including debates about the monarchy as an institution," Thai foreign ministry official Sek Wannamethee wrote earlier this year.

    How has the law been used?

    Despite its long pedigree, there is no clear legal definition of what exactly constitutes lese majeste, and complaints can be filed by anyone, from officials to members of the public.
    Police are obliged to investigate cases, not doing so could potentially put them in breach of lese majeste themselves, according to Streckfuss.
    "The strength of lese majeste is that it's unclear where its lines are. That's its power," he said.
    Last year, police opened an investigation into US Ambassador Glyn Davies over claims he may have breached lese majeste during a speech at the Foreign Correspondents Club Thailand. Davies, who has diplomatic immunity under international law, was not charged.
    In one of the most highly-publicized instances in recent years, 27-year-old Thanakorn Siripaiboon was charged with "liking" a Facebook page deemed insulting to the king and posting a sarcastic photo of Bhumibol's beloved pet dog. Thanakorn's lawyer told CNN his client had been indicted and was still awaiting trial. He faces up to 37 years in prison.
    Nor is intention to offend necessarily required. In 2012, Ekachai Hongkangwan, 37, was sentenced to three years in prison for selling copies of an Australian documentary about the royal family. The accuracy of the claims in the film had no bearing on the case, the judge said at the time, "because if it is true, it is more defamatory and if it isn't true, then it's super defamatory."

    What effect does it have?

    The broad scope of the law can make it next to impossible to discuss or speculate on certain issues surrounding the royal family or the succession, said Streckfuss.
    "In the name of protecting the monarchy, the junta is tightening a chokehold on free expression and heightening a climate of fear across Thailand" via lese majeste prosecutions, Human Rights Watch said in May.
    Media organizations, especially those based in Thailand, are limited on what they can report on the royal family, with reporters, editors and publishers liable to be charged should an article fall foul of the law.
    Even articles discussing lese majeste cases themselves are risky, as reporting what the accused said or did can be an offense in itself.
    "There are incidents where the reporter has been charged for quoting someone else and the person who said it was not charged," said Streckfuss.
    Last year, the New York Times' printer in Thailand refused to produce an edition of the paper that contained a story examining the future of the monarchy.