A Thai court acquitted a folk singer-turned-activist of his third royal defamation charge on Thursday, a rare ruling under a draconian law that is used to shield the royal family from any criticism.
Thanat Thanawatcharanont, better known by his stage name “Tom Dundee,” was arrested in 2014 and hit with four counts of lese majeste.
The law carries up to 15 years in prison per offence and effectively protects Thailand’s ultra-rich and powerful monarchy from public scrutiny.
Thanat, 59, has been convicted of two of the lese majeste charges and is still serving a nearly 11-year sentence.
But Bangkok’s criminal court dismissed his third case on Thursday, which was levelled over a speech he gave at a political rally in 2011.
“After deliberation of the indictment details it’s not sufficiently clear that the defendant has insulted monarchy,” the verdict said. “So the case is dismissed,” the judge added.
Acquittals are extremely rare in lese majeste trials, which are shrouded in secrecy and often held behind closed doors.
Prosecutions have shot up under the ultra-royalist junta that seized power in 2014, with conviction rates for those accused at more than 90%.
Media must routinely self-censor when reporting on lese majeste trials as repeating details of the offence can be grounds for prosecution. Analysts declined to be quoted on why Thanat may have been acquitted.
Observers are closely watching for any changes in the use of the law under King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who took the throne in late 2016 after the death of his deeply-revered father Bhumibol Adulyadej.
So far there has been no significant abatement in heavy sentencing under his reign, with a Thai man handed 35 years in prison last June for allegedly defamatory content he posted on Facebook.
However, in January prosecutors dropped a case against a famous historian accused of lese majeste for doubting the official version of a historic elephant duel led by a king in the 16th century.
That decision was also hailed as rare.