Thai royal insult prisoner "Uncle SMS" dies in jail

Protesters gather outside the Criminal Court in Bangkok December 9, 2011. Protesters wore masks and hold pictures of Amphon Tangnoppaku, dubbed "Uncle SMS", for 112 minutes outside the court protesting after he was jailed for 20 years last month for sending text messages deemed to have disparaged Thailand's Queen Sirikit. Lese-majeste, or the offence of insulting the king, queen, crown prince or regent, is article number 112 in Thailand's Criminal Code. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

BANGKOK (Reuters) - A Thai man who was jailed for 20 years after being found guilty of sending text messages disrespectful to Queen Sirikit has died in jail a few months into his sentence, his lawyer said on Tuesday.

The case last November of Amphon Tangnoppaku, 61, who the media nicknamed “Uncle SMS”, had stoked a debate about the harsh sentences imposed in Thailand for lese-majeste, or insulting the king, queen or crown prince.

“Uncle was admitted to the prison’s infirmary unit after experiencing severe stomach pains since Friday,” Amphon’s lawyer, Anon Numpa, told Reuters. “We haven’t found out the cause of death yet but he had been battling cancer.”

During his trial, Amphon had denied sending the SMS messages to a government official, saying he did not even know how to send such messages from his mobile telephone.

Successive governments have ignored international calls to reform the lese-majeste laws, a highly sensitive issue in a country where 84-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej is regarded as semi-divine.

The laws are increasingly questioned in Thailand itself, with some critics arguing the legislation is abused to discredit activists and politicians opposed to the royalist establishment.

Lawyer Anon also said a request for a royal pardon for another client, Lerpong Wichaikhammat, known as Joe Gordon, had been approved by the Ministry of Justice and was being forwarded to the Bureau of the Royal Household.

Gordon, a Thai-born U.S. citizen, was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in jail in December 2011 after pleading guilty to using the Internet to disseminate information that insulted the monarchy.

The U.S. embassy criticized the severity of the sentence and said it supported freedom of expression in Thailand as elsewhere in the world.

Reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat and Sinsiri Tiwutanond; Editing by Alan Raybould and Robert Birsel