“From King Rama to the Crown Prince, the nobility was renowned for their romantic entanglements and intrigues. The Crown Prince had many wives “major and minor “with a coterie of concubines for entertainment. One of his recent wives was exiled with her entire family, including a son they conceived together, for an undisclosed indiscretion. He subsequently remarried with another woman and fathered another child. It was rumoured that if the prince fell in love with one of his minor wives and she betrayed him, she and her family would disappear with their name, familial lineage and all vestiges of their existence expunged forever.”
-- from "Verisimilitude," 2005 novel by Harry Nicolaides, now a prisoner in the Bangkok Remand Prison, Thailand, after pleading guilty to the crime of lèse majesté, public disrespect of Thai royalty. The above paragraph is the offense for which he was charged, arrested and imprisoned.
Here is the lèse majesté law:
Section 112: Whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, the Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years.
The Age (daily broadsheet, Australia)
22 November 2008
The trouble with Harry
by Thornton McCamish
HARRY Nicolaides published his first book in 2002. Concierge Confidential is a series of lightly fictionalised tales Nicolaides had collected during the seven years he worked as chief concierge at Melbourne's Rydges Hotel.
On the book's back cover some of Nicolaides' VIP guests are quoted praising him for his service, and thanking him for his authorly discretion. Former prime minister Gough Whitlam took a different line. His telegram was read aloud at the book's launch party: "God save the Queen, because nothing will save Harry."
The message delighted Nicolaides, but it has a more sombre ring to it now. On August 31 this year, Nicolaides was at Bangkok airport waiting to board a flight to Melbourne when he was detained by Thai police on charges of lese majeste, the crime of insulting the monarchy. The arrest warrant alleged Nicolaides had insulted the Thai royal family in his second book, Verisimilitude, a novel Nicolaides self-published in Thailand in 2005.
For the past 82 days, Nicolaides has been held at the Bangkok Remand Prison, where he shares one toilet with up to 60 other prisoners, including men accused of violent and sexual crimes. He was only formally charged yesterday.
He has retracted the book and publicly apologised to the royal family and the Thai people for any offence caused by his "reckless choice of words", but bail has been denied three times.
Few novels as commercially unsuccessful as Verisimilitude — only seven copies were sold — can have caused so much strife for their authors. The alleged offence is believed to concern three sentences in the book in which the narrator refers to rumours concerning the romantic life of an unspecified crown prince.
"It is simply one of the most bizarre cases I've ever come across," says Arnold Zable, author and president of the Melbourne branch of International PEN, an organisation that campaigns on behalf of writers in detention around the world.
Lese majeste cases involving foreigners are not common in Thailand. The most recent involved 57-year-old Oliver Jufer, a Swiss man charged with lese majeste when he was caught on video last year drunkenly defacing posters of the king. After spending several months on remand, Jufer pleaded guilty to the charge and was sentenced to 10 years' jail. He had served a few weeks of the term when he was pardoned by the king and deported.
But Nicolaides' case is "more unusual than the average unusual case", says Dr David Streckfuss, a historian from the University of Wisconsin who lives in Thailand and specialises in the country's lèse majesté laws.
"It's not clear that any Thai ever read the book in the first place — and there has never before been a charge made on a novel."
The case represents another sobering first, too: Nicolaides' is the first International PEN case involving an Australian writer.
The 41-year-old East Doncaster boy seems an unlikely candidate for this grim honour. "We used to call him Pinstripe Harry," recalls Scott Newton, who got to know Nicolaides a decade ago when he too was working as a concierge. "That was his nickname among the concierges. He liked to be nattily dressed. But he was highly esteemed in the profession."
Former Democrats senator Natasha Stott Despoja met Nicolaides in 2001. They became friends. She remembers a "caring, compassionate, witty person" who inhabited the character of the grand-hotel concierge with endearing gusto. "He was a concierge out of a different era. Sort of Jeevesy, with slicked-down hair. He was a creative, clever soul."
Nicolaides left Rydges Hotel in 2002 and set off to see the world. He first visited Thailand in early 2003, where he met his partner, a lecturer at Mae Fah Luang University in the northern Thai town of Chiang Rai. In Thailand he taught English, wrote columns about expat life for an online magazine and published his novel. In 2006 Nicolaides came home to work for a while on Melbourne's Greek-community newspaper Neos Kosmos, then spent most of last year teaching in Saudi Arabia.
By late 2007 he was back in Thailand, teaching and writing some punchy journalism on the side, mostly on exotic topics. An article about arms smuggling in Saudi Arabia had appeared in London's New Statesman magazine last year; this July he wrote a story for Eureka magazine about the trafficking of pornography at the Thai-Burmese border.
Harry Nicolaides has never been accused of avoiding the spotlight. He has been accused — notably on expat blogs in Thailand, where his case has been a lively subject of discussion — of naivety.
Yet when he published Verisimilitude three years ago, Nicolaides took the precaution of sending his book to the National Library, the Thai Ministry of Culture, the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Bureau of the Royal Household to check that its contents were acceptable. He received no response. When his book was released no one reviewed it and hardly anyone read it. Only 50 copies were printed. There was nothing to suggest that the novel, which was only published in English, hadn't sunk directly into deep obscurity.
Scott Newton, who now lives in Thailand, says Nicolaides had never even mentioned the book to him. "I think he'd just forgotten about it. Everyone else had. It was three years ago."
Thai authorities issued a warrant for Nicolaides' arrest on March 17 this year. He was not told he was under investigation. Between March and August, Nicolaides left and re-entered Thailand five times with no sign of trouble. On one of these occasions he was issued with a new tourist visa. When he was pulled aside by police at passport control on the night of August 31 he was, his brother, Forde Nicolaides, says, alarmed. When Australian embassy staff arrived and explained the allegations, he was "absolutely astonished".
Lese majeste is a serious crime in Thailand, where the royal family is all but universally revered and the current monarch, 81-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, is revered. The crime carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in jail.
The laws have never been invoked by the royal family. In fact, in his 2005 birthday address to the nation, the world's longest-serving monarch indicated that the law was troubling to him and that he disapproved of its use.
But that has not dampened a marked increase in enthusiasm for lese majeste accusations in recent years. "Many Thais," David Streckfuss says, "have become trigger-happy in making the charge." There are currently 32 new cases of lese majeste under investigation.
This surge of such cases has coincided with the period of political instability Thailand has experienced since the 2006 coup. "(Lèse majesté) is the ultimate weapon in Thai society," a former government minister told The Wall Street Journal last week. "If you can accuse somebody of insulting the king, then you've gone a long way toward eliminating them."
This increase in lese majeste cases, argues Dr Andrew Walker, an anthropologist at ANU's Asia-Pacific program, has to be seen in terms of the "political polarisation" in Thailand today. "The authorities are very concerned to keep the royal family out of politics, and to clamp down on any discussion which might reflect negatively on the royal family. There's a strong campaign to pursue lèse majesté charges. I think Harry Nicolaides is a very small fish who's been caught in the crossfire."
Responding to a complaint made to the United Nations Human Rights Council by Reporters Without Borders, the Thai Government released a statement in October rejecting claims that Nicolaides had been arbitrarily detained, and emphasised the Government regards lèse majesté as a "grave threat to national security".
"The proposition that Harry is a threat to Thai national security," says his Australian lawyer, Mark Dean, SC, "is simply untenable."
Dean became involved in the case through a family connection. In mid-September he flew to Bangkok to help Nicolaides' Thai legal team prepare a second application for bail. The first had been denied on the grounds that Nicolaides was a flight risk. Nicolaides volunteered the cancellation of his passport and supplied character references, including one from Kim Beazley, former federal Labor leader, but the second application for provisional release failed anyway. So did the third. "We were told by police that they wouldn't oppose bail," Dean says, "and then they did."
Initially optimistic, Dean now believes that an acceptable legal solution to the case is unlikely. "The terrible position that Harry's in is, in my view, inextricably connected to the political situation in Thailand," he says. "He is not being treated equally before the law. All Thais charged with the offence get bail.
"If the new Australian Government is serious about the role of international law and protecting the human rights of its citizens, then this is a case where Harry Nicolaides' human rights must come before the sensitivities of the relationship between Australia and Thailand."
The fact that Nicolaides is still in jail after nearly three months baffles many of those following the case. "This case should be a no-brainer for government," says Stott Despoja. "It is possible to respect the monarchy and people of Thailand but at the same time defend the human rights of an Australian citizen."
FORDE Nicolaides says his brother has been receiving excellent welfare support from Australian embassy staff in Bangkok. But he is critical of what he sees as the Australian Government's refusal to consider that Harry's detention may be illegal or discriminatory. "If the Government's looking seriously into that, or doing anything at all to help secure his immediate release then we're not hearing about it. The worst thing about all this has been the not knowing, being kept in the dark."
A spokesman from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade told The Age this week that the Government was doing all it could. "Consular staff have communicated with the Nicolaides family and their lawyer more than 70 times about the case," the spokesman said, "and while the Government sympathises with Mr Nicolaides' family in their distress over his detention, Mr Nicolaides is subject to the Thai judicial process. The Government cannot control or intervene in that process."
Since his brother's arrest, Forde has been de facto co-ordinator of the campaign to highlight Harry's case, spending hours each day writing letters and co-ordinating support. But he's also very concerned for the welfare of his elderly parents, Socrates, 83, and Despina, 74, who have described the past few months as a "living death". Poor health prevents them from travelling to Bangkok, and since prison officials have denied Harry access to a phone, they haven't been able to speak to their son since his arrest.
Yesterday, the police prosecutor formally proceeded with the charges; Nicolaides is expected to face several more months' jail before his case reaches court.
"A real tone of desperation is creeping into his letters," Forde says. "I've never seen that from Harry before. He has this sense that he's caged up and he just desperately needs to get out. And he feels this mental anguish that what he's alleged to have done wrong seems so disproportionate to the way he's been treated."
Harry Nicolaides' only contact with the world outside his crowded cell is the 20-minute visit he is permitted each day. Scott Newton has been visiting him regularly in a "tiny, stinking hot" room where four prisoners and their visitors have to shout through a glass grille just to be heard over "all the fighting and wailing".
Nicolaides has broken down several times during these visits, Newton says. "He's just desperate now. He's afraid of just becoming another number, of being forgotten and being left there to rot."
Thornton McCamish is a Melbourne writer.
- 30 -