A Thai-born US citizen jailed for insulting Thailand's king has received a royal pardon, officials said Wednesday, a move welcomed by Washington which had issued a rare rebuke to Bangkok over the case.
Joe Wichai Commart Gordon, a car salesman from Colorado, was sentenced to two-and-a-half years imprisonment in December under Thailand's lese majeste laws, which rights campaigners say are used to stifle freedom of expression.
His release came just before Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is scheduled to meet US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at a business forum in Cambodia on Friday.
The 55-year-old was arrested in May 2011 while on a visit to Thailand, after he had posted material online from his own Thai translation of a banned English-language biography of King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
Gordon "was granted a royal pardon yesterday", a senior Corrections Department official told AFP on Wednesday. The Bangkok Remand Prison said he left the jail late Tuesday.
"We are pleased that US citizen Joe Gordon was granted a royal pardon which allows him to be released from prison," US embassy official Walter Braunohler said.
"We urge Thai authorities on a regular basis both privately and publicly to ensure that freedom of expression is protected in accordance with international obligations."
Gordon was taken to the US embassy on release, according to his lawyer Anon Numpa.
Speaking to AFP in prison just hours before he was freed on Tuesday, Gordon said he had heard that he could be allowed out but could not quite believe it.
"It's good... I had heard that yesterday," he said. "But it could still be a rumour."
His conviction put the international spotlight on Thailand's increasingly controversial lese majeste prosecutions, drawing protests from the United States, which had said Gordon was exercising his right to free expression.
Under the legislation, anyone convicted of insulting the Thai king, queen, heir or regent faces up to 15 years in prison on each count.
The royal family is a highly sensitive topic in politically turbulent Thailand. The king, who is revered as a demi-god by many Thais, has been hospitalised since September 2009.
Observers say lese majeste prosecutions have surged following a coup by royalist generals that removed fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006. Thaksin's sister Yingluck now leads the government, but the trend is seen as likely to continue.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun, of the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University in Japan, told AFP that Gordon's case was "unusual" and did not necessarily show a softening towards those accused of lese majeste.
"I think the US have been putting pressure on," he told AFP. "It is too soon to celebrate. This does not reflect the overall mood in Thailand."
Gordon was initially sentenced to five years in prison. But the Thai Criminal Court halved the term because he pleaded guilty over his translation of excerpts from "The King Never Smiles" by Paul Handley, who now works as an AFP journalist.
Several high-profile cases have intensified scrutiny of the royal insult laws in recent months, with the death in custody of a 62-year-old Thai man while serving a 20-year sentence for lese majeste also fuelling debate.
Pranee Danwattananusorn, whose political activist husband Surachai is serving 10 years for defaming the monarchy, said freedom was more easily won for Gordon "because he is American".
"It will take longer for the others, for my husband," she told AFP.