Page last updated at 08:15 GMT, Friday, 30 March 2007 09:15 UK

Sensitive heads of state

By Patrick Jackson
BBC News

Swiss citizen Oliver Jufer, who pleaded guilty to insulting the Thai king by spray-painting portraits, has been jailed for 10 years under Thailand's rarely used "lese-majeste" law.

Thailand is not the only state to prosecute those who offend their head of state, though few such laws are as draconian. Its law carries a maximum prison sentence of 75 years.

Timothy West as Wolsey (L) and John Stride as Henry VIII in a 1979 BBC production
One step beyond - Henry VIII equated lese Majeste with Treason

The concept of "lese-majeste" (literally, injury to the Majesty) as a crime goes back to ancient Rome and was jealously guarded by absolute monarchs in medieval Europe, while something similar existed in Asian cultures.

In Brunei, which like Thailand is ruled by a monarchy, three men were jailed for a year in 2006 for sending mobile phone clips judged seditious and insulting to Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah and his family.

Laws protecting the "dignity" of a monarch have been borrowed by many modern republics.

In the Indian Ocean state of the Maldives, three journalists were sentenced to life in 2002 for "insulting the president" and setting up a newsletter critical of the government.

In Poland, a member of the European Union, you can technically get up to three years for offending the president.

Given that Mr Jurer comes from a country that has such strict rules about when to take the garbage out, what time you can mow the lawn or wash your clothes, he really should know better
Yas, Malta
BBC News website reader

That protection is extended to any foreign head of state visiting the country. Thus police arrested 28 demonstrators in 2005 who were protesting against President Vladimir Putin of Russia, a country which has not enjoyed good relations with its western neighbour at the best of times.

The chief concern about insult laws among human rights campaigners is that they can be used to stifle freedom of expression.

A basic right

"Freedom of speech is one of the most basic human rights," a spokesperson for Amnesty International told the BBC News website.

Abdel Kareem Soliman
Egypt jailed blogger Abdel Kareem Soliman for insulting its leader

"No state should be prosecuting any individual for expressing an opinion held peacefully."

Amnesty is not quibbling with laws on defamation or incitement which, it says, rightfully exist in any state to protect individuals and the community.

But other than these recognised limits on freedom of speech, there should be no restrictions, it argues.

Republics which have prosecuted people for insulting their heads of state in recent years are typified by authoritarian leaders

  • An Egyptian court sentenced blogger Abdel Kareem Soliman in February to four years in prison for insulting Islam and President Hosni Mubarak
  • Kazakhstan gave journalist Kaziz Toguzbayev a two-year suspended sentence in January for "insulting the honour and dignity" of President Nursultan Nazarbayev
  • Zimbabwe gave a two-year suspended sentence to businessman Jason Gambitzs in 2004 for denigrating President Robert Mugabe by saying he had "printed useless money"
  • Belarus sentenced two opposition figures, Valeriy Levonevskiy and Alexander Vasiliev, in 2004 for publicly insulting President Alexander Lukashenko
  • Syria sentenced journalist Mohammad Ghanem to six months in prison in 2006 for charges which included insulting President Bashar al-Assad

Access to the popular video-sharing website YouTube was suspended in Turkey this month after prosecutors told a court that clips had appeared on the site insulting national hero Mustafa Kemal Ataturk - who has been dead for nearly 70 years.

Rebellious or rude?

Freedom of speech was not, strictly speaking, at issue in Thailand's prosecution of Oliver Jufer, who admitted spray-painting several portraits of the king while drunk.

King Bhumibol
Many in Thailand see King Bhumibol as an anchor of stability

"It was the idea that being rude about a government was a very bad idea - it hurt the government but was technically not treason because no act of rebellion was committed," Prof Ronald Hutton of Bristol University told the BBC News website.

"In the days before the idea of constitutional opposition, any opposition was regarded as criminal and anybody who spoke against the government had to be prosecuted because it could incite rebellion."

If the concept now sounds obscure in that other leading contemporary monarchy Britain, it is thanks to King Henry VIII (1491-1547), who took personal injury one step further.

"Traditionally you have a division in countries between acts against the monarch which are treason and rude things said against the monarch which are 'lese-majeste'," Prof Hutton explains.

"But Henry VIII passed an act which made speaking against the king treason in itself so 'lese-majeste' became redundant."

Before anyone gets unduly anxious about offending Queen Elizabeth II, it should be pointed out that British parliamentarians dealt with that part of Henry's act long ago.

Since the 1790s, Prof Hutton points out, Britain has had freedom of speech legislation which covers most of what was once "Treason-by-words".

Your comments

Well... if you are walking down the street in London facing massive Queen's portraits on every corner, pretty sure you will be intimidated or annoyed.
J.Woo, Uk

"When in Rome, do as the Romans. When in Asia, do as the Asians, please." But what if the Roman or Asian way is against the basic right of human beings, then what?
unnamed reader

This is truly shocking. Respect is earned, not ordained. I respect the Thai people. They have to live and work under such capricious and vile laws. I have zero respect for their King that doesn't rationally find such laws inhumane... He's been given the fate of millions by birthright without ever earning that enormous right and responsibility. Us "Westerners" may not be the beacons of honour and morality to most of you, certainly my country's leadership is lacking beyond imaging, but I am proud they're thick-skinned enough not to be disassembled by mere insults. How fragile Thailand's monarchy must be if they fear the act of a drunkard... I question the upbringing of some of you that support this garbage. Any of those that suggest to blindly follow authority have clearly lost some capability... called thinking. If you defend such onerous nonsense, you should be jailed along with the drunk, for supporting such dangerous laws of repression that clearly is a danger to all of Thailand... From the country that can take its punches and give some back. Peace.
Ernesto, Washington DC

Being a Thai living in many countries abroad longer than in Thailand I find some opinions on the issue most interesting while others to be downright pitiful. When one travels the world one cannot just hold on to one's own supreme standard but adjust and adapt as one goes along - to make the most of what are on offer and to one's own benefits and enjoyment. The Swiss has lived for a decade in one of the most beautiful cities in the world with a mild climate, well-mannered gentle people and great choices of food, and at a fraction of what he would have to pay in Switzerland. One day he got drunk and did what not only goes against the law but is also the most offensive act to the Thais. Is this not the case of taking out of the land more than he put in? He should have left the country if and when he's so unhappy at the way it's governed. In my opinion he deserves what he's got, perhaps he will make himself useful while serving his sentence? I do believe, however, that he will be pardoned one day. And in a larger picture, I hope, a lesson is learned (or is it not?) and the point is made. And to those ignorant few the Thai King has worked extremely hard throughout his life for his own people and the land, and in so doing he has earned the highest respect and love from his own people. He is our father. I now wish to ask how do you treat your own selfless father? And how would you feel & react when someone tries to knock him down?
Suraphee Simpson, Surbiton, Surrey, England

Draconian sentences like the one handed down today serve no purpose in the 21st Century other than to maintain already fraught divisions between Western and Eastern cultures
Marc, London
BBC News website reader

When I lived in Thai refugee camps in the 80s, we were not allowed to mess with Thai Baht which have the king's pictures or emblem on them. Refugees were beaten up every day just because their lack of respect for the Thai King. Even when the Thai national anthem is playing, no matter where you are or what you do, you must stand still and straight. If Thailand means the land of the free, then it should reconsider it name.
S. Ley, Santa Ana, US

I'm a Filipino living in Japan for the last 6 years and have met many Thai nationals, and I can say that they truly have a deep respect for their King. For those who criticize the Thai monarch for being pompous or having a temper, I would like to say that the King does not charge anyone with "lese majeste" (and if I'm not mistaken, has never had, at least in contemporary Thailand); it's the police that does. There are cases wherein the said law was indeed abused (i.e. when politicians accuse their rivals), but in the case of Mr. Jufer, his actions are similar to flag-burning/defacing of national symbols and should be punished, although I would agree that the sentence is draconian indeed.
Christian Ernest, Oita, Japan

Everyone in Thailand knows the respect that the royal family, and in particular the King, are held in. Of course one should do what is expected of you in a different country and culture. Having said that the law regarding the Thai monarchy serves no one but the powerful - who have managed to hide behind it for their political advantage before (example Thaksin expelling critical foreign journalists on the grounds they insulted the monarchy). This rule does Thailand no favours, laws are not needed for the King to be respected (he has it already), social mores are enough to ensure respect is given - it only shows Thailand in a poor way to the international community.
Tim, Seoul Korea

Given that Mr Jurer comes from a country that has such strict rules about when to take the garbage out, what time you can mow the lawn or wash your clothes, he really should know better. I agree with Derek from Canada. The rule is simple: Respect the rules of the country you are in, otherwise stay home.
Yas, Malta

The guy has absolutely no excuse. As foreigners in this country we are all well aware of Thais' respect for their monarch. They and most foreigners still stand for the national anthem in the cinema before a film. I am sorry but it's values like this that form a National Identity and give a people pride. What would happen if you played the national anthem before a film in the UK? Also the offender will have been well aware in advance that he would be unable to buy alcohol on this day and should have done like all sensible foreigners here and had a supply at home.
Paul, Pattaya Thailand

Although the court ruling of ten years is very severe, the point in fact is that Oliver Jufer was disrespectful and vandalous. He not only went on a rampage of vandalism throughout the city of Chang Mai but also chose to degrade symbols of the very core of society in the country that was hosting him. If we had strict such punishment and reverence for our cultural symbols there might be a lot less vandalism in our communities as well. Respect for property and cultural symbols is innate to any nation and this man deliberately went contrary to the respect of that land. He deserves to be punished.
Antonio, Tokyo, Japan

Folks need to remember that yes, as draconian and exaggerated as the sentence may appear... this law is not imposed or even necessarily acknowledged by the king, but is enforced more so by all his subjects who see him as someone who very genuinely holds his people to heart and see him as the one pivotal figure of stability in a country with a history fraught with political instability and corruption and just as any of you might feel angered, even vengeful perhaps at someone demonstrating total, uncalled for disrespect to your immediate family members, so do the Thai people feel protective of their king whom they lovingly refer to as father.
long term expat resident in Thailand, Bangkok

I find this ridiculous... In the 21st century today, people can even freely criticise or insult the gods - who does the Thai king think he is? God? or superior than gods? Outrageous! People should boycott travel industry in Thailand. Such country is a horrified country, every single tourist in there must be cautioned over the unstable politics and their "sacred" king... who knows maybe some day a single wrong saying about their king there can cost your fortune and life. Wake up, it's the 21st century not the feudal era. Everyone is an equal individual, We don't need anyone superior over us.

having lived in parts of asia for years, I kinda get the whole respects for monarchy thing - its not about respecting a terrifying institution, but about respecting an institution that symbolises a nation and a people, in a way. If individuals in parts of the 'free' west can be charged under law for burning the flag of certain nations, what difference defacing a poster depicting a symbol of another? If this guy had been simply an ignorant tourist, then he wouldn't know better, but he had lived in the country for 10 years. Though I hope he is pardoned, I understand why a nation that has made him welcome for such a time might not feel inclined to let him off lightly.
penny, Glasgow, Scotland

Yet another travesty of Thai "Justice". This says far more about Thailand than it does about Oliver Jufer; Draconian sentences like the one handed down today serve no purpose in the 21st century other than to maintain already fraught divisions between Western and Eastern cultures.
Marc, London

If King Bhumibol can truly call himself as such then he should step in and pardon Oliver Jufer.
Richard, London, UK

No one brings anything into the world at birth, no one will take anything out of it at death. Everybody, including monarchs, should bear that in mind.
wilhelm mistiaen, antwerp, belgium

While we enjoy the privilege of international travel, especially to places in Asia, we are made aware of, and therefore must abide by, all national and international laws. Many foreigners travelling through such countries seem to think that they are above these laws and that they only apply to the "locals" and that their respective embassies will step up and get them out of trouble. It's simple, respect the laws of the countries that let you in.
Derek Junor, Toronto, Canada

The countries you mentioned are just the tip of the ice-berg. Regimes which need these repressive laws to avoid accountability and shut down public debate are the real traitors.
Adrian, Melbourne, Australia

For Murdoch in Prague: It seems clear from your comments that you understand nothing of respectability, opinions, laws or customs of other countries. I do wonder what kind of upbringing you were subjected to that you cannot see the man was wrong in insulting and not respecting His Majesty the King. Furthermore, I do not believe His Majesty sees Westerners as threats. The whole issue fundamentally lies with respecting one's culture, which the West seems to have forgotten how to. Any patriots would understand that. If you are one, and find your country insulted, I doubt you would write what you, sadly, have written. Respectfully yours, M in Oxford.
M, Oxford

Honestly, I find this rather comic and cruel at the same time, on one side you have a drunk and on the other, a king, who in my opinion, must have an explosive temper and turn purple at the mere idea of him being put down. Yes it may be against the law to do so, yet if all of a sudden the king says that he feels that anyone from the West is a threat and should be kicked out to maintain his ego, is that right? No, and all this is is one person poking fun at the king. It poses no threat to the king at all. So why freak out over an insult? Now this may sound harsh but why not just quit being self-saturated and care for your people for they are the ones keeping your country alive, it's not all you sir.
Murdoch, Prague. Czech Republic

It is appalling that such extreme laws still exist. The king of Thailand may be loved by his people, but since it is illegal to report anything but good news, they cannot possibly know what he is really like. Maybe he is as wonderful as they think, but maybe not. These draconian laws do not help the monarchy, except to stifle and control any opposition. I think they are used to stop ordinary Thai people learning the truth about how their country is run behind the scenes and by whom.
Mary Aquila, Stockholm, Sweden

I think it was just a rude act, and an apology should suffice. Personally, I believe it is most insulting to other human to consider oneself a king or queen. Aren't we all created equal?
Jamila Thomas, USA/kwt

Sorry, I am Chinese, but I still find this ridiculous. I know in the ancient Asian couture, these kind of acts are very serious crimes. Not just Asia, but I guess everywhere of the world. However, in modern world? No way. Don't claim this Asian culture, maybe it's a Thai culture, but it's not an Asian culture, it's a feudal and out of date practice. In modern Asian societies, we don't think this "lese Majeste" act is any good thing and can represent Asian culture. Never! PS, I criticise our Chinese Communist leaders and their policies everyday, even the former chairman Mao.
Ming, China

In the Far East, we respect our monarchs not only as part of our culture, but even to the extend of our beliefs (divine majesty) sometimes. As such the view of lese Majeste is somewhat more serious compared to the "openness" of Western culture. You say, when in Rome, do as the Romans. I say, when in Asia, do as the Asians, please.
T.Chunlakorn, Thailand

I've lived in Thailand for the past five years. The guy should have known better. There's no excuse. But for "P. Kamao" from Kenya, saying that it's normal for Westerners not to have any respect, is a foolish and contradictory statement. I've been to Africa as an NGO and I've seen the respect that your "elders" have given to the people. And it wasn't pretty. And I've lived in Asia long enough to realize there is no respect in driving. This was simply someone making a stupid decision. You have to remember there are thousands of other Westerners living in countries like Thailand who are respectful.
T. Johnson, Bangkok, Thailand

You know, it may seem outrageous from the Western perspective! But Western people should know that respect is very important in most cultures and societies especially in Asia and Africa. I think the Swiss man is paying for his bad bringing up! perhaps he grew up without any sense of respect for anybody including his elders, the trend of which is so familiar and normal in western children and adults.
P. Kamao, Kenya- US

Swiss man admits Thai king insult
12 Mar 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Graffiti reveals Thai royal fears
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22 Feb 07 |  Middle East
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Polish police hunt 'insult' man
24 Aug 06 |  Europe
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