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Thailand astrologer accused of defaming royals dies in military custody

A prominent fortune teller accused of insulting the monarchy has died in a military prison. 53-year-old Thai celebrity is second person to die in custody after being charged with 'lese majeste.'

Thailand's Justice Ministry says Suriyan Sujaritpalawong, a celebrity fortune teller known to the public as "Mor Yong" died of a blood infection Saturday.

His death comes about two weeks after he and his assistant were detained in connection with a high-profile case in which people have been accused of claiming royal connections in order to enrich themselves financially.

The Thai royal family is protected by one of the world's toughest royal defamation laws and prosecutions under it have skyrocketed since a military coup in May 2014.

Thai journalists often must self-censor their reporting on the elite royals in order to avoid falling foul of the strict law that can carry sentences of up to 15 years.

Last seen alive October 21

Thailand's Corrections Department said the 53-year-old celebrity soothsayer, a former aide to Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, was taken to hospital after he was discovered by guards unconscious in his cell.

"A hospital tried to revive him for about an hour, but they were unsuccessful," the statement said, adding that an autopsy carried out the following day showed he had succumbed to blood poisoning.

Suriyan's death raises questions over the military's role in a royal defamation probe that has swept up a string of high-profile figures including a senior police officer who was found hanged in his cell on October 24, just two days after his arrest. His body was swiftly cremated in yet-to-be-explained circumstances.

Justice Minister Paiboon Khumchaya, himself a former general, told reporters Monday that the prison was not at fault for deaths in custody.

"Sometimes prisoners die in prison," Khumchaya told reporters. He added that a fraud suspect had recently died while in detention. "But there was no reporting on it because he was not a man in the news."

Royal defamation law stifles debate

Nationalfeiertag Thailand

Thailand's 87-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej - seen in this file photo from late 2012 - is in declining health. The military regime that last year ousted the elected civilian government has declared "defense of the monarchy" as a top priority.

Critics say the majority of those prosecuted for royal defamation are being punished for expressing views critical of the monarchy.

About a dozen recent cases have involved palace or establishment figures charged in secrecy-shrouded investigations of improperly using their connections with the monarchy to enrich themselves.

Thailand's king is a frail 87-year-old whose heir apparent is unclear. The royal defamation law has prevented public discussion about this uncertainty and has created a nervous climate amidst this open question.

jar/jil (AP, AFP, Reuters)

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