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U.S. citizen freed after jail time for insulting Thai monarchy

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand's king has pardoned a U.S. citizen who was jailed for two and a half years last December for insulting the monarchy, a case that prompted rare U.S. criticism of its Southeast Asian ally, and calls for it to respect freedom of expression.

Thai-born Lerpong Wichaikhammat, 55, also known as Joe Gordon, had pleaded guilty to using the Internet to spread information that insulted the monarchy, charges stemming from material posted on his blog in the United States.

"Joe Gordon was granted a royal pardon and released from jail on Tuesday night," Walter Braunohler, a spokesman at the U.S. embassy in Bangkok, said on Wednesday.

The case highlighted Thailand's extensive use of the world's most draconian lese-majeste laws to stamp out even the faintest criticism of 84-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world's longest-reigning monarch.

Human rights groups had hoped Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, some of whose party members are among those accused of lese-majeste, would reform the law after winning the election last year. But she is treading carefully, aware that her opponents in the military and royalist establishment could seize on any hint of disloyalty to the monarchy to bring her down.

"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," embassy spokesman Braunohler said.

Lerpong had translated material from a book about the king that is banned in Thailand, and made it available online.

U.S. embassy officials could not say whether he would now return to the United States.

Foreigners found guilty of lese-majeste or insulting the monarchy under a computer crimes law are generally given a royal pardon after serving part of their sentence. A guilty plea at trial tends to help that process.

Lerpong's pardon comes two months after a Thai man, Amphon Tangnoppaku, died in jail while serving a 20-year sentence after being found guilty of sending text messages deemed threatening to and disrespectful of Queen Sirikit. He denied the charges.

The death of Amphon, nicknamed "Uncle SMS" by the media, stirred debate over the severity of sentences handed down to those found guilty of insulting the monarchy, with critics saying the law is abused to discredit activists and politicians.

Thailand's monarch, regarded as almost divine by many in the majority Buddhist country, is in poor health and has been in hospital for almost three years.

His health and succession are sensitive topics. Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn has yet to command the same respect as his father.

(Reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Alan Raybould)

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