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Greeks rally to free Harry

Observations on Thailand

Melbourne may be a long way from Athens, yet it is not so far away that the Greeks in one city forget their kin in the other. The inseverable ties between the two have been highlighted by an incident that took place in Thailand: it involves a passage in a book, the "defamation" of a king and the imprisonment of a man whose émigré parents made the arduous journey from Cyprus to Melbourne in 1951.

As the New Statesman reported last month, on 19 January Harry Nicolaides was sentenced to three years in jail under the country's strict èse-majesté laws after the trial judge ruled that a novel Nicolaides had written "suggested there was abuse of royal power" by daring to describe the romantic infidelities of a fictional prince.

At the sight of the disconsolate 41-year-old dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit and shackled at the ankles, Greeks were not slow to be moved, or goaded into action. In Greece and Cyprus, freedom of expression groups have rallied to the cause beside artists, singers and musicians in Melbourne, who staged a solidarity concert for him. Urgent petitions, launched mostly by ethnic Greeks living in America and Australia, have been started in cyberspace. A blog, Bring Harry Home, has collected nearly 9,000 signatures since its launch early this month.

"Greeks have a globalised notion of who they are and they were informed about Harry's plight very quickly," said Fotis Kapetopoulos, who edits the English-language edition of Neos Kosmos, the thrice-weekly newspaper that caters for Melbourne's 400,000-strong Greek diaspora. "We began advocating for Harry immediately. Most of us feel that the Australian authorities have done far too little."

In letters written from jail (penned in Greek using Latin script, in an ingenious move to avoid being understood by prison guards), Nicolaides has described the awful conditions of incarceration.

His days are spent with 60 other inmates, convicted mostly for rape and murder, in a cell the size of a large living room. There is one lavatory - a hole in the ground - poor ventilation and little sunlight. Inmates receive very few visitors. They endure nights sleeping on floors covered with fishbones, saliva and cat vomit. If an inmate should die, as one did during the six months Nicolaides has now spent in Klong Prem Central, Bangkok's most inhospitable jail, cellmates are forced to sleep next to the corpse until the next morning.

"Kevin Rudd should write a letter saying that I apologise to the king," he wrote barely a month after his imprisonment. "Only that will help." In the absence of action by the Australian premier, the spiritual leader of Cyprus, Archbishop Chrysostomos II, has sent an impassioned plea to Thailand's Swiss-educated monarch. A distant relative of Nicolaides, the prelate saw it as his duty to reach out and help. He has also appealed to Australian officials, including Alexander Downer, the former foreign minister and UN special envoy to Cyprus, to intervene.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who in fact is believed to be no fan of the law, is thought to have received the archbishop's letter this month. On 16 February, Thai correction department officials said that a recommendation for Nicolaides to receive a royal pardon was being considered, though there is no news of any final release.

What is clear, however, is the ferocity with which the Thai authorities are pursuing perceived infringements of the èse-majesté laws. Giles Ungpakorn, a prominent left-wing academic who, like Nicolaides, is an NS contributor, was this month forced to flee the country after being charged with defaming the monarchy in a book about the 2006 coup that deposed Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister. Unlike Nicolaides, who was unaware he was a wanted man until he got arrested at Bangkok airport, Ungpakorn was lucky. He is now in Britain to tell the tale.

The drama has taken a toll on Nicolaides's family. His mother, Despina, who had made an appeal for clemency on YouTube, suffered a stroke brought on by the sight of her son becoming "half the man he was". And the furore has provoked the one outcome that the èse-majesté laws aim to prevent. Nicolaides's banned novel, Verisimilitude, sold seven copies of the mere 50 he had published four years ago. Now posted online, it has had more readers than its author perhaps could ever have imagined.

Helena Smith is the Guardian's Athens correspondent