BANGKOK - A Thai-born American who spent more than a year in prison on charges of insulting Thailand's king says the country's harsh laws outlawing criticism of the monarchy are holding back its democratic development. He has vowed never to return until his motherland stops being so "thin-skinned" and allows full freedom of expression.
Joe Gordon, who was convicted last year of translating excerpts of an unauthorized biography of King Bhumibol Adulyadej from English into Thai and posting them online, said those jailed under Thai laws protecting the royal family often suffer abuse from prison guards and are treated "like animals." While he now denies committing any crime, Gordon pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two and a half years in prison before receiving a royal pardon in July.
The punishment was a high-profile example of the severe sentences meted out here for defaming Thailand's royal family, a crime known as "lese majeste." The issue has drawn international attention and raised concern about freedom of speech in this Southeast Asian kingdom best known as the easygoing Land of Smiles, a tourist paradise that draws some 19 million visitors per year.
Gordon's case also raised questions about the applicability of Thai law to acts committed by foreigners outside Thailand, since he posted the link while residing in the U.S.
"Freedom of expression is not harassment, and Thai people don't understand that," Gordon told The Associated Press before his planned departure from the country Thursday. He said in Thailand the attitude is "if you don't believe and you don't follow us in the way we are doing things, it means you are insulting us."
Bhumibol, the world's longest-reigning monarch, is revered in Thailand and is widely seen as a stabilizing force. But 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 behind bars.
Opponents say that lese majeste laws are often abused to punish political rivals. That has been especially true amid the political turmoil that has followed a 2006 military coup that unseated Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who among other things was accused of disrespect for the monarchy.
Supporters say the monarchy is an essential part of the Thai identity and defending it is a matter of national security.
Gordon, 55, is accused of posting links to a translation of the banned biography "The King Never Smiles" in 2007 while in Colorado.
"As an American citizen, I didn't do anything wrong," Gordon said. "It's my freedom of expression on American soil."
He acknowledges posting the links to the translated biography excerpts on his personal blog, but denies translating it. Either would be enough to face charges in Thailand, where authorities have warned that Facebook users around the world who "share" or "like" content that insults the Thai monarchy are committing a crime.
In the book, author Paul 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.
Gordon, who was born Lerpong Wichaikammart in Thailand, has lived in the U.S. for about 30 years and is a naturalized citizen. He was arrested in Thailand in May 2011 after he returned to seek treatment for arthritis and high blood pressure.
He said he was in his apartment in northeastern Thailand when it was stormed by about 20 plainclothes police officers who confiscated his computer and accused him of wanting to turn Thailand, a constitutional monarchy, into a republic. It's a charge that hardcore opponents have also levelled at Thaksin.
Gordon said an officer pointed to a poster of the Declaration of Independence — a gift from a relative — that he had hung on his wall. "He said 'You want to change this country to be like this. You want a republican,'" Gordon recalled.
After being repeatedly denied bail, he pleaded guilty in October last year in hopes of obtaining a lenient sentence. The judge said at the time that the punishment, initially set at five years, was reduced because of Gordon's plea.
"The only easy way to get out is to accept it," Gordon said, explaining why he didn't fight the charges.
During his 14 months in prison, Gordon said his health problems grew worse because of conditions he described as inhumane. He said the situation was worse for those accused of political crimes, such as lese majeste prisoners or those associated with the Red Shirt political movement, which is aligned with Thaksin.
"When the doctor knows that your case is a lese majeste or you are a Red Shirt or you are a political prisoner, they will not treat you, they will not give you medicine," he said.
There have been allegations that other prisoners charged with lese majeste have not been able to get proper treatment, including a 62-year-old grandfather who died of cancer in prison.
Prison official Sorasit Chongcharoen denied that lese majeste prisoners were abused.
"Doctors and prison officials are giving fair treatment to every prisoner or detainee, regardless of their charges," he said.
Gordon said the lese majeste law should be scrapped because it is too strict and rather than protecting the royal institution causes it more harm.
"If Thailand wants to move forward to catch up with globalization, they need to get rid of lese majeste and release all the political prisoners," he said.
He said the country's attitude toward controversial speech was holding it back.
"Thailand needs to learn to handle the truth. Have a thicker skin to move forward," he said.
He said his experience in Thailand has left him emotionally scarred.
"I'm very aware now that Thailand is not really the land of smiles, and you have to be careful what you are doing in this country," Gordon said. "It seems like on the surface a nice country, but if you dig deeper it is dangerous and can harm you."