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Court Cases

'He won't stay in prison, not if we have any say'

A Thai journalist has been given a 10-year prison sentence for insulting the monarchy under the country's controversial lese majeste laws. Elizabeth Cotton talks about the campaign to get Somyot Pruksakasemsuk released.

Somyot Pruksakasemsuk, who has been detained since 2011, has been pronounced guilty of publishing articles defaming the king when he was editor of a magazine in 2010. Last week's verdict has drawn widespread condemnation from rights groups and the European Union.

Elizabeth Cotton is among those campaigning for Somyot's release. She's a London-based trade union activist and academic who's known Somyot for 20 years. As part of her campaign, she's appealing to people to send books to the prison, the aim being to raise the profile of his case.

DW: How would you describe Somyot Pruksakasemsuk?

Elizabeth Cotton: Somyot is extraordinary. And by that I mean he's an extraordinary human being. He's the worst driver I've ever met. He has a brilliant sense of humor but the thing that is really striking about him is his humanity. When I first met him, which was about 20 years ago when I was a labor organizer for a big international trades union, he would make me sit for two or three hours every day in market places, in cafes, and in these big industrial zones in the Bangkok region, and just watch people and try to talk to people and listen to them. So by nature, he is a very loving person and he likes other people. And I think that really explains why politically he's been so successful and also why he's in the situation he is now because he is a genuine threat.

And of course now this week, he was sentenced to a 10-year prison sentence for insulting the country's royal family. Can you give us an idea of this law? For Westerners, it is pretty hard to understand - you'd probably have to lock up 80 percent of Great Britain … What did he say that was so outrageous?

Well the basic thing is he didn't say anything. He was arrested because he was editor of a magazine called the "Voice of Thaksin," another translation of which is: the "Voice of the Oppressed." It wasn't a majorly political magazine. That's not possible in Thailand, but it had editorial stories and two stories were fictional stories written by a journalist. One was about a rural family. Another was a ghost story. And this journalist wrote these stories under a pseudonym. What has never been questioned is that Somyot is not the author of these two articles. He was arrested because he was editor of the magazine that published them.

Have you spoken to Somyot since the verdict was given this week?

I haven't. but I've spoken to his wife who's been very active in the campaign to get him released. And we know that a couple of our campaigners are going to be visiting him in prison to look at the appeal process and how we approach this next stage.

Do you know how he reacted to the verdict? What did he say?

I don't know what he said - he wasn't allowed to speak. But he did look at his supporters. He smiled. He looked very confident. I have to say I was quite anxious about looking at the pictures of him because I was worried that he would break down. But he didn't. He seemed very confident. He has a very nice relaxed manner to him and he managed to maintain that yesterday. But of course, this must be very difficult for him because his health is really under threat here.

What are the conditions like in the prison?

They're bad. Thai prisons are not luxurious; we know that much. They're in very busy rooms. I don't know how many people he's sharing with at the moment but of course there's no privacy at all and it is very difficult to sleep at night. And it is one of the reasons why he became librarian of the Bangkok Prison, because it is actually probably the first time he's got time on his hands where he can actually read books.

Bangkok Prison may soon be able to boast one of the best furbished libraries in the country. Tell us about your campaign.

We started first asking people to send in books to the librarian of Bangkok Prison as a way of informing the authorities that people knew about his situation and they knew where he was. The authorities refused to accept all of our books that we sent. But at least we sent them by recorded delivery. So the books were sent in - really great books. But they were returned. So I'm afraid the library actually is still a bit sparse.

Looking ahead, is he going to be spending the next 10 years in prison?

No. Not if we've got anything to do with it. We are insisting on his right to bail. We have applied for bail 15 times during the last two years and all applications have been declined. We are now going to push ahead with the United Nations, Amnesty International and European Union support for him to be released on bail on humanitarian grounds. We've had very clear statements from Amnesty International and the United Nations Human Rights Commission that this is not a legitimate verdict. So we hope very much that the authorities will overturn it.

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