The death of Amphon Tangnoppakul serves to remind us of a travesty of justice.
Amphon died of cancer last Tuesday at Bangkok Remand Prison’s central hospital. He was 61. He passed away before he could apply for a royal pardon on his lese majeste conviction and prison sentence of 20 years.
In life as well as in death, Amphon was at the centre of an ongoing debate between proponents and opponents for change in the lese majeste law.
The opposing camps should, however, be mindful that this is a time for mourning and reflection, instead of treating the dead man like a political football.
The verdict, handed down last November, was actually a summation of oddities found in the Amphon case.
The legal wrangling began after four SMS text messages were sent on May 9, 11, 12 and 22, 2010 to the mobile phone of Somkiat Krongwattanasuk, private secretary to the then prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.
With or without Amphon’s involvement, it was odd that someone would target Somkiat, as if trying to provoke the authorities to enforce the lese majeste law.
Inquiries subsequently linked the messages to Ampon’s mobile phone, using the International Mobile Equipment Identification (IMEI) as evidence.
Unlike past cases involving royal insult, the prosecution opted to prosecute Amphon based on the IMEI and mobile phone technology rather than re-enact how and why the offensive messages were sent.
In other words, the court heard arguments and rebuttals about the technology to identify and link Amphon’s mobile phone to the four messages and not whether Amphon was the man who sent them.
In the court of public opinion, many had two lingering doubts – whether Amphon was capable of text messaging and whether the IMEI could be manipulated to frame Amphon.
These two doubts were not addressed in a court of law. And the defence neglected to explain why Amphon’s mobile phone showed a number of text messages sent when there were doubts whether he was capable of relaying such notes.
The gist of the conviction was based on the Computer Act holding Amphon accountable for the spread of offensive messages via SMS. The lese majeste law was cited to penalise him in conformity with the procedural code to invoke a stronger provision of the two laws in the sentencing.
The defence did not, curiously, dispute the prosecution’s branding of the messages as a royal insult.
If a frail man like Amphon was prosecuted for a crime he did not commit, then this leads to a disturbing question – who was behind the scam to frame him?
The four text messages were sent via an SMS substation located near Amphon’s home. But the question remains: Did someone deliberately involve Amphon?
Oddities of the case did not end in the courtroom.
The autopsy report showed Amphon had terminal liver cancer. After his death, his wife admitted knowing about the fatal illness. Yet in all his eight bail applications, the defence never mentioned cancer.
In March, Amphon decided to seek a pardon instead of trying to overturn his conviction. His poor health was apparent for all to see.
But the people he trusted convinced him to opt for a pardon via the government as a short route to directly petition the King.
Shortly before he succumbed to his illness, he wrote a passionate letter to his defence team voicing optimism about a pardon. He seemed to be unaware that the government had not started his pardon process.