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Banned biography translation leads American to Thai prison sentence

Thai-born US citizen is jailed for two and a half years for defaming the country's royal family.

Joe Gordon, a Thai-born US citizen, looks on from his prison cell. Mr Gordon was sentenced to two and a half years in jail for translating and positing online The King Never Smiles, a biography banned in Thailand.
Joe Gordon, a Thai-born US citizen, looks on from his prison cell. Mr Gordon was sentenced to two and a half years in jail for translating and positing online The King Never Smiles, a biography banned in Thailand.

BANGKOK // An American who translated a banned biography of Thailand's king and posted the content online while living in Colorado was sentenced to two and a half years in a Thai prison today for defaming the country's royal family.

The verdict is the latest so-called lese majeste punishment handed down in the South East Asian kingdom, which has come under increasing pressure at home and abroad to reform harsh legislation that critics say is an affront to freedom of expression.

The 55-year-old Thai-born American, Joe Gordon, stood calmly with his ankles shackled in an orange prison uniform as the sentence was read out at a Bangkok criminal court.

Judge Tawan Rodcharoen said the punishment, initially set at five years, was reduced because Mr Gordon pleaded guilty in October. Arnon Nampa, the defence lawyer, said Gordon would not appeal, but would apply for a royal pardon.

The sentence was relatively light compared to other recent cases. In November, 61-year-old Amphon Tangnoppakul was sentenced to 20 years in jail for sending four text messages deemed offensive to the queen.

Mr Gordon posted links to the banned biography of King Bhumibol Adulyadej several years ago while living in the US state of Colorado, and his case has raised questions about the applicability of Thai law to acts committed by foreigners outside Thailand.

Speaking after the verdict, Gordon said, "I am an American citizen, and what happened was in America."

He also said he had no expectation of being let off easy. "This is just the system in Thailand," he said. Speaking later in Thai, he added: "In Thailand, they put people in prison even if they don't have proof."

Mr Gordon had lived in the US for about 30 years. He was detained in late May during a visit to his native country to seek treatment for arthritis and high blood pressure. After being repeatedly denied bail, he pleaded guilty in October in hopes of obtaining a lenient sentence.

Thailand's lese majeste laws are the harshest in the world. They mandate that people found guilty of defaming the monarchy — including the king, the queen and the heir to the throne — face three to 15 years in prison. The nation's 2007 Computer Crimes Act also contains provisions that have enabled prosecutors to increase lese majeste sentences.

The US Embassy's consul general, Elizabeth Pratt, told reporters in Bangkok after the ruling that Washington considered Mr Gordon's punishment "severe because he has been sentenced for his right to freedom of expression".

Opponents of the laws say that while the royal family should be protected from defamation, lese majeste laws have often been abused to punish political rivals. That is especially true since the nation suffered a 2006 military coup.

Asked if he would stay in Thailand after serving his time, Mr Gordon said: "I would like to stay and see some positive Thailand. I want to see the real, amazing Thailand, not the messy Thailand."

Many had hoped that the administration of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, which has some prominent supporters who have been accused of lese majeste, would reform the laws. The issue remains highly sensitive, however, and Ms Yingluck's government has been as aggressive in pursuing the cases as its predecessors.

Last weekend, the New York-based Human Rights Watch urged authorities to amend the laws, saying the penalties being meted out were "shocking".

The rise of the internet in recent years has given Thai authorities many more targets to pursue. Last month, Anudith Nakornthap, the information minister, said Facebook users who "share" or "like" content that insults the Thai monarchy are committing a crime. Mr Anudith said Thai authorities asked Facebook to remove 86,000 pages between August and November because of alleged lese majeste content.

Gordon, a former car salesman, is accused of having translated excerpts from the unauthorised biography "The King Never Smiles," published by Yale University Press, into the Thai language and publishing them in a blog. He also provided links to the translation to other two Web forums, prosecutors say.

In the banned book, author Paul M Handley retraces the king's life, alleging that he has been a major stumbling block to the progress of democracy in Thailand as he consolidated royal power over his long reign.

Bhumibol, the world's longest-reigning monarch, is profoundly revered in Thailand and is widely seen as a stabilising force. He was feted Monday on his 84th birthday, during which he called on his countrymen to unite in response to the worst floods in more than half a century.

The king is frail and has stayed at a Bangkok hospital for more than two years.