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Nicolaides free, but writers' persecution persists


Harry NicolaidesHarry Nicolaides' release from a Bangkok prison, and return to Melbourne last Saturday brought to an end a harrowing six month ordeal both for Nicolaides and his family.

He should never have been jailed in the first place. The law under which he was charged, lèse-majesté, the crime of insulting the Thai monarchy, breaches article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees freedom of expression. Thailand is a state signatory to the covenant.

While Nicolaides was pardoned, the law remains. On 20 January this year, the day after Nicolaides was sentenced to three years imprisonment, Giles Ji Ungpakorn, an associate professor at Chulalongkom University in Bangkok, and a contributor to Asia Sentinel and New Statesman, was charged with the offence.

The complaint against Ungpakorn relates to his book A Coup for the Rich, in which he criticised the 2006 military coup which overthrew Thai democracy. He was given 20 days to respond to the charges, before Thai authorities decided whether his case would be referred to the courts for prosecution.

He could face between three and 15 years in prison if found guilty. Fearing the consequences, Ungkaporn, a vocal critic of the military, fled to London in early February.

International PEN, one of a number of human rights groups that vigorously campaigned on Nicolaides' behalf, is concerned about the growing number of Thai citizens being charged under this law. Anyone can file a police complaint of lèse-majesté on the king's behalf. Unfortunately Thai cases do not receive a high level of attention. The Thai public is unable to judge the merits of the offences because the press runs the risk of being accused of repeating the crime by merely reporting it.

While the exact source of the accusation is yet to be determined, there is little doubt that Nicolaides was a pawn in the machinations of Thai politics. Members of the Thai military, police force and political elite appear to be using the law so that they will be seen to be currying favour with the Thai monarchy, and as a means of stifling legitimate discussion of the monarchy. The New York based Committee to Protect Journalists has pointed out that Thailand's Ministry of Information Communication and Technology closed down more than 2300 websites last month for posting materials deemed offensive to the monarchy.

According to International PEN, Harry Nicolaides' case was unusual. He was, it is believed, the first Australian writer to be imprisoned in another country because of his writing. Most PEN cases concern writers imprisoned, harassed, threatened, exiled or murdered for the peaceful pursuit of their craft in the countries of which they are citizens. Several hundred writers languish in prison at any given time. International PEN is currently pursuing the cases of 600 journalists, novelists, poets and bloggers, imprisoned or harassed for daring to criticise their governments.

Many cases involve acts of extraordinary courage. Burmese poet and comedian Maung Thura, aged 47, popularly known by his stage name, Zargana, was sentenced in November last year to a staggering 59 years in prison after criticising the government for neglecting the victims of the cyclone that swept through lower Burma, now known as Myanmar, in May 2008, killing over 130,000 people.

Zargana has long been critic of the Burmese government. He spent time in prison in 1988 and in the early 1990s for his support for Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy.

Despite Chinese government promises, in the lead up to the Beijing Olympics, to honour the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which it is a signatory, more than 40 writers remain in prison on charges such as 'inciting subversion of state power' and 'publishing articles critical of the authorities'. Sentences range from three–20 years, with the majority serving sentences of over eight years.

There is particular concern about the rise of Internet writers being detained, most notably Shi Tao, serving a 10-year sentence for 'revealing state secrets' after having emailed his notes of a government briefing meeting.

On 20 January 2009, Stanislav Markelov, a lawyer for the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, was shot dead in a Moscow street after leaving a press conference at the Independent Press Centre. His colleague, journalist Anastasiya Baburova who was walking alongside Markelov was also shot in the head, and later died in hospital.

Markelov had represented the investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya before she herself was assassinated in October 2006. This month the four men accused of helping to organise her murder were acquitted by a Moscow court amid suspicion that those responsible for her death are still at large.

The release of Harry Nicolaides is a cause for celebration and great relief. Yet it leaves many unanswered questions over the reason for his imprisonment, and also highlights the plight of many other persecuted writers. There is a need for an investigation into the circumstances of Nicolaides' arrest so that in future the Australian government and the Minister of Foreign affairs do not again merely resort to the mantra that we cannot interfere with the judicial processes of another country.

Australian governments also need to be more concerned with the fate of imprisoned writers in countries with which the governments are doing business. Many are courageous individuals who desperately require our representation and support.

Arnold ZableArnold Zable is an author and the president of the Melbourne Centre of International PEN.


Topic tags: arnold zable, harry nicolaides, thailand, insulting thai monarchy, lese-majeste, Anna Politkovskaya



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Existing comments

It probably goes back to those articles he wrote in the Phuket Gazette bragging about teaching illegally.

DH | 27 February 2009  

Very well said, Arnold

john fox | 27 February 2009  

Of course he should have been put in gaol. He broke the law by including the ruler in his book.

bygone | 27 February 2009  

Maybe the Committee to Protect Journalists should encourage journalists and other writers to practice cultural sensitivity when visiting foreign countries and courtesy in all places.

Sylvester | 27 February 2009  

How wonderful to open this article to the beautiful and smiling face of Harry Nicolaides. I don't know Harry but have been following his case and fighting for his release. Your article, Arnold, leaves me numb with grief about the horror so many writers endure for the right of free speech. Thank you so much for using your right in our great nation.

Patricia Taylor | 27 February 2009  

It would be interesting to find out more about the judge who found the offence proven and passed the sentence. Can we feel confident that he acted with probity and had no material or political inducements?

Thomas Mautner | 27 February 2009  

Paradoxically, the cynical use of lèse-majesté by political opportunists, police and military is itself a more grievous instance of lèse-majesté, abusing as it does the high standing of the Thai Royal family, especially the King. However, the breach of article 19 of the UDHR and the situation of Ungpakorn are more serious matters.
Thanks, Arnold. More power to your PEN.

Paul Redmond | 27 February 2009  

What is needed is an investigative journalist not afraid to ask hard questions over the reasons for Harry's imprisonment and why the Australian government were silently complicit in allowing the violation of human rights of one their citizens. The argument put forward by the Aust foreign minister that they cannot interfere in Thailand's legal process was meaningless; the Thai legal system in LM charges is innefective and the judiciary is not independent. Harry was destined from the time the charge was laid to end up in gaol. Only the King through a pardon process is able to correct the violation of human rights that occurs during the legal circus that eventuates in these cases. Perhaps the first questions should be asked of Police Lieutenant Boonlert Kalayanamit of the Thai Police, the officer reported in the media as the one who arrested Harry.

Rofen | 28 February 2009  

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