Thai politician indicted for royal insult over vaccine speech

Banned opposition politician Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit turns up at a police station after police charged him with defaming the monarchy, after he accused the government of relying too much on a royal-owned company to produce its supply of coronavirus vaccines, in Bangkok, Thailand, March 30, 2021. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

BANGKOK, April 11 (Reuters) - A prominent Thai politician faces up to 20 years in prison following his indictment on Monday for insulting the king and violating a cyber law, after he criticised the government for over-reliance on a royal-owned firm to supply COVID-19 vaccines.

Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the 43-year-old leader of the disbanded Future Forward Party, is accused of lese majeste and breaking cyber laws in a January, 2021 Facebook Live stream, during which he said the government had mishandled its vaccine campaign and unfairly favoured Siam Bioscience, a firm owned by King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

Thailand has one of the world's strictest lese majeste laws and a conviction carries a maximum sentence of 15 years, while breaches of its computer crimes act are punishable by up to five years in prison.

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Thanathorn, who was granted bail on Monday, denies insulting the monarchy and said his criticism was directed at the government, not the royal family.

"What I did was intended for public benefit and to protect the royal institution," he told reporters.

"I want to stress that the usage of this law is not a good thing, and certainly not good for the monarchy," he added, referring to the lese majeste law.

Siam Bioscience, which had not produced vaccines prior to last year, was chosen to manufacture the COVID vaccine of Britain's AstraZeneca (AZN.L) for distribution in Southeast Asia. It also received $20 million in government subsidies to develop its capacity. read more

Thanathorn had also complained the government should have diversified its sources of vaccines.

Thailand subsequently used three different types of COVID vaccines, which Thanathorn said was proof his remarks were in the public interest.

The complaint against him was lodged by an official in the prime minister's office. The government, AstraZeneca and Siam Bioscience have stood by the vaccine production agreement.

The office of the attorney general did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Thanathorn was banned from politics for 10 years in 2020 by the Constitutional Court over a loan he gave his former opposition party. His indictment comes as scores of members of a student pro-democracy movement affiliated with his party await trial on similar charges, which they deny.

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Reporting by Panu Wongcha-um and Panarat Thepgumpanat; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Kanupriya Kapoor

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