New law protects Thai Constitutional Court from criticism

BANGKOK (AP) — A new law makes criticism of Thailand’s Constitutional Court punishable by imprisonment, giving extra protection to a body that in recent years has made controversial rulings altering the shape of governments.

The unheralded law took effect when it was published last week in the Royal Gazette. It says honest criticism without rude, sarcastic or threatening words is not in violation of the law, but if such words are used, it is punishable by up to one month in jail and a 50,000 baht ($1,600) fine.

Defamation is a criminal offense in Thailand, punishable by up to two years in prison, but must first be filed through the police. The new law allows the Constitutional Court to deem verbal attacks a “violation of court powers,” enabling it to initiate its own cases.

“What constitutes a violation is still broad and unclear,” said Yingcheep Atchanont, manager of legal monitoring group iLaw. “Now that the law has been passed, the Constitutional Court should refrain from using this law or not use it at all.”

The clause “violation of court powers” constitutes something new, said Yingcheep, explaining that in the past, problematic criticism could be dealt with under the defamation law, which would put it in the hands of a different court.

“But a ‘violation of court powers’ is a special charge. Once the court sees the offense, they can become the defendant, investigator, and judge,” Yingcheep said.

The Constitutional Court has been closely involved in some of the political tumult that has enveloped Thailand since at least 2006, when one of its rulings invalidated a general election, undermining the government of then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a military coup later that year.

The coup triggered years of sometime-violent contention for power between Thaksin’s supporters and opponents, with the Constitutional Court, when it had the opportunity, usually weighing in with rulings against Thaksin’s side. The court was seen as favoring Thailand’s traditional ruling class, including the army and the palace, over the billionaire Thaksin, whose populist policies won him massive political support.

“Many times in the past, the Constitutional Court has ruled on cases that have had political significance, such as the nullification of elections,” said Yingcheep. “Therefore, it is a normal consideration for citizens to criticize court rulings, one way or another; there will be people who both agree and disagree. Therefore, this power over ‘violation of court power,’ or the limiting of criticism against court rulings, needs to be applied with an understanding of social dynamics and politics.”

The 31-page law also grants the Constitutional Court authority to settle legal disputes between state agencies, as well as allowing citizens to petition some complaints directly to the court.

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