Sun, Feb 22, 2009 - Page 5 News List

Australian writer freed from Thai jail after pardon

SURVIVING THE SLAMMER Harry Nicolaides, jailed for slandering the monarchy, said he ran out of tears, but he never ran out of hope that he would be released

AFP , SYDNEY

An Australian writer jailed for insulting the Thai royal family flew home to a tearful reunion with his family yesterday after being pardoned by the king and freed from jail.

Feeling “bewildered, dazed and nauseous,” Harry Nicolaides touched down in the city of Melbourne yesterday after spending five months in a Bangkok prison on charges of slandering the Thai monarchy.

Thai officials said 41-year-old Nicolaides was released on Friday evening after officials approved a royal pardon — the result of intense lobbying by Canberra.

“I was informed I had a royal pardon and asked to kneel before a portrait of the king — a royal audience of sorts,” Nicolaides told reporters on arrival at Melbourne airport. “A few hours before that, I was climbing out of a sewerage tank that I fell into in the prison.”

“I ran out of tears, but I never ran out of hope or love,” he added, after an emotional homecoming with his family.

Nicolaides was sentenced to three years in jail after pleading guilty to lese majeste, or slandering the monarchy, in his 2005 novel titled Verisimilitude.

He expressed anger, confusion and frustration at his imprisonment, saying Australians enjoyed “rare privileges” of democracy and free speech.

His lawyer, Mark Dean, said the previous Thai administration had imprisoned Nicolaides to send a strong message of intolerance to dissent at the height of political unrest in Bangkok.

“I think it’s fair to say that Harry was a political prisoner and that the reasons for the commencement of this case against him were inextricably linked to the political crisis in Thailand in August 2008,” Dean said. “Since then conditions have changed in Thailand, there has been a change of government and the current Thai government has done everything it can to support Harry’s case.”

A spokesman from Australia’s foreign affairs department said diplomats in Bangkok and Canberra had worked closely to resolve the writer’s case.

“We appreciate the expeditious handling of the pardon by Thai authorities,” the spokesman said.

Speaking at his son’s side, Nicolaides’ father Socrates said the ordeal had been a “living death” for the family.

“But now I feel I have come alive again,” he said.

Brother Forde Nicolaides said he was “ecstatic” at the outcome.

“Our emphasis to the Thai government was ... for them to consider Harry’s case compassionately and expeditiously,” he told national newswire AAP. “I think everyone was on the same page, as they have been reasonably expeditious with the application. We are very grateful for that.”

Nicolaides, who had previously worked as a university lecturer in Thailand, has been in prison since his arrest at Bangkok airport’s departure lounge on Aug. 31.

The charge against him related to a passage in the novel, of which Nicolaides says only a handful of copies were sold.

Thailand has some of the strictest laws in the world protecting revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej and his family from insult, but media freedom groups have accused authorities of abusing the law to suppress dissent.

Thai authorities have banned nearly 4,000 Web sites in recent months for allegedly insulting the monarchy. Police said last week that more than 17 criminal cases of insulting the royal family are currently active.

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