Amid the government imposes a state of emergency in response to the outbreak of COVID-19, a public concern of the abuse of emergency measures to suppress freedom of expression and information. The assemblies of pro-democracy protests were slowed down due to the outbreak of COVID, while public space tends to shrink for voicing their opinions or criticisms of the government administration and officials. TLHR’s overall report in March 2020 covered the last phrase of students’ campaigns and obstacles before the COVID-19 pandemic, the judicial harassments on citizens’ criticism of the government, and six TLHR’s key case updates.
PM Prayuth Chan-o-cha invoked Emergency Decree in response to COVID-19 outbreak
On 24 March 2020, PM Prayuth Chan-o-cha invoked the Emergency Decree B.E. 2548 (2005) and declared a state of emergency in response to the outbreak of COVID-19, following the sharp increase of infected cases in mid-March. The state of emergency is in place from 26 March to 30 April. Later, the government announced a number of regulations and measures to control and suppress local transmissions of the virus, including restrictions of access to area of risks, closure of point of entry to the Kingdom, prohibition of the stockpile of goods, and prohibition of assemblies and events. The government further put in place restrictions of news reporting. If presents any information deemed false, causing panic to the public, distorted and causing confusion during the emergency, and affecting public order and morale, the media is penalized.
Many human rights organizations have voiced their concerns of the abuse of emergency measures to suppress freedom of expression and information. The Emergency Decree must be enforced in commensurate to the situation, provisional and time-bound, carefully executed and on the basis of necessity and proportionality, in order to safeguard the fundamental rights and liberties of the people and serve the sole purpose of virus transmission.
> Read TLHR’s legal opinion on the Declaration of the State of Emergency in Response to COVID-19 Pandemic
(photo from prachathai.com)
Harassment and surveillance of pro-democracy protestors, while protests slowed down due to the outbreak of COVID.
The Constitutional Court’s decision to dissolve the Future Forward Party led to a public outcry and a number of protests and activities against dictatorship throughout Thailand. The protests, including 85 in educational venues, also called for support for democracy as well as amendments to the Constitution. In addition, 12 planned protests and events were either cancelled or shut down due to the university’s disapproval of use of venues as well as pressure to cancel.
In March, there were reports of authorities’ surveillance of individuals. This includes reports in eastern province Rayong, where a man with a buzz haircut with characteristics similar to those of military personnel visited the residence of a protestor and took photos of his family members, in addition to a surveillance car spotted. Local police also called and visited a protest organizer in Chantaburi, eastern province, several times to request information and developments of any other activity. In Phayao province, northern Thailand, police monitored a student at Phayao University who organized the Run Against Dictatorship marathon. The police further threatened the student’s apartment office resulting in the student moving out.
Miss Sirin Mungcharoen, a student at Chulalongkorn University also reported a ‘witch hunt’ against her, after a video of her raising a black flag during a university conference on 24 February 2020 was circulated. A number of Facebook pages criticised her behaviors as disrespecting the Thai national flag and shared her personal information to the public. They further called for the university to investigate and punish her alleged misconduct. Sirin denied the alleged intention and reasoned that her action was carried out only after the national flag was pulled down. Her action was specifically to symbolise the injustice.
Following the outbreak of COVID-19, the trend of political activities and protests decreased due to the restrictions on assemblies. The last protest was organized on 14 March 2020 at Khon Kaen University, northeastern Thailand.
(photo courtesy of TLHR)
Prosecution of government critics
In March, individuals, politicians and government officials have reportedly been prosecuted for voicing their opinions or criticisms of the government administration and officials.
- Pol Sen Sgt Maj from Amnat Charoen province detained after producing parody videos of PM Prayuth. The Pol Sen Sgt Maj allegedly produced seven videos, featuring PM Prayuth’s and other politicians’ voices for entertainment, which later went viral on social media platforms. His commander subsequently ordered a three-day detention on grounds that verbal misconduct and misbehavior. The Pol Sen Sgt Maj stated his lack of intention to disrespect or disdain the PM, or to cause damage to the administration. He further stated that all videos were deleted.
- Five Provinces Bordering Forest Preservation Project filed a defamation suit against MP Rangsiman following his outside-the-Parliament debate. On 20 March 2020, Mr. Rangsiman Rome, former MP of the now defuncted Future Forward Party and current MP of the Move Forward Party, stated that he received a summons from Bangkhuntian police station, Bangkok, to hear charges of defamation by advertisement. Col Pinyo Boonsongsantikul, representative of the Five Provinces Bordering Forest Preservation Project, accused Rangsiman of alleging Gen Prawit Wongsuwan, during the no-confidence debate outside the Parliament, of reportedly using the land owned by the Project for personal gain.
- Artist prosecuted with computer-related crime for sharing absence of COVID screening at airport. On 23 March 2020, police presented an arrest warrant and arrested Mr. Danai Ussama, street artist, from his gallery in Phuket province, southern Thailand. Danai was charged with offence under Section 14(2) of the Computer Crime Act for allegedly publishing a post on Facebook. The post dated 16 March 200 claimed that, upon Danai’s return to Thailand from Spain, Suvarnabhumi airport did not erect health checkpoints for 500 – 600 incoming passengers from his aircraft or passengers disembarked from a few other aircrafts. Later the Airports of Thailand PCL accused Danai of importing false information onto the Internet and caused damage to the airport.
The police later boarded Danai, who just returned from a country of high-risk virus transmission and subjected to self-quarantine, on the plane to Bangkok. Danai was later brought to the Technology Crime Suppression Division (TCSD) and charged. He was then detained at Thung Song Hong police station, Bangkok, and later brought to the Criminal Court on 24 March. The Court granted him provisional release with a 100,000 Thai Baht (approx. USD 30,000) surety.
- Deputy Minister Thammanat files suits against his critics. Miss Chalida Pengcharoenrat informed Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) that on 31 March 2020 she had received a summons from Phayao police station, in northern province Phayao. Mr. Artit Manassa, acting for Agriculture and Cooperatives Deputy Minister Maj Thammanat, filed a defamation suit against Chalida. She suspected that the allegations against her might stem from her referring to Thammanat’s four-year imprisonment for drug charges in Australia when voicing her opinion on the Future Forward Party’s Facebook page. Due to the outbreak of COVID-19, Chalida requested a postponement for her reporting.
Key cases updates
(photo courtesy of TLHR)
- Court acquitted defendants of Thai Federation Group at The Mall Bangkapi but found guilty those at Central Ramintra
On 9 March 2020, the Criminal Court read the verdict on the case against Mr. Terdsak and Mrs. Praphan, who were accused of wearing a black T-shirt with a flag of red and white straps and a text “Federation,” the symbol of the Thai Federation Group, at a local shopping mall called The Mall Bangkapi on 5 December 2018. The Court acquitted the defendants of sedition offence under Article 116 due to insufficient evidence. The defendants were also acquitted of secret society offence under Article 209 of the Criminal Code, seeing that the alleged acts were already prosecuted in a separate case.
Later, on 26 March 2020, the Criminal Court read a verdict on a separate case against Mrs. Ranee, in relation to the Thai Federation Group. The case stems from her wearing a black T-shirt at a local shopping mall called Central Ramintra, Bangkok, on 5 December 2018. Seeing that the defendant pled guilty, the court saw her guilty of secret society offence under Article 209 of the Criminal Code. The Court however acquitted her of sedition offence under Article 116 of the Criminal Code, citing that Ranee did not persuade others to carry out the activity and the act of wearing a black T-shirt did not constitute an illegal act. The defendant was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment and a fine of 20,000 Thai Bath (approx. USD 680). The imprisonment is suspended for two years, requiring the defendant to report to the official four times and serving community service for 24 hours.
(photo courtesy of TLHR)
- Rayong Court rules leaflet case guilty, sentences to four months in jail.
On 26 March 2020, the Provincial Court of Rayong read a verdict on the case against Mr. Ponlawat (last name withheld) who were charged with sedition under Article 116 of the Criminal Code and Section 14 of the Computer Crime Act. The allegations stem from the defendant allegedly distributing leaflets with content against the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), and forwarding photos to the Thai Student Center for Democracy (TSCD) who later posted them on Facebook in 2015. The case was previously under the jurisdiction of the Military Court, and later transferred to the Court of Justice.
The Court ruled that the defendant was guilty of distributing leaflets in four locations in Rayong province, eastern Thailand. The distribution was done in public places and accessible to the public. Further, the content of these leaflets displayed incitement against the NCPO, that then government. The Court sentenced the defendants to six months‘ imprisonment, however the sentence was reduced to four months without suspension. For offences under the Computer Crime Act, the Court failed to see sufficient evidence that the defendant posted the photos and write the captions for the Facebook page, therefore acquitted the defendant of charges under the Act. After the verdict reading, the defense counsel requested a provisional release with a 100,000 Thai Bath (approx. USD 30,000), which was granted.
- Chiang Mai Court acquitted critic of the draft Constitution.
On 25 March 2020, the Provincial Court of Chiangmai read verdict on the case against Mr. Boonlert Boonranupakorn and 14 others, who were charged with offences under Articles 116, 209 and 210 of the Criminal Code, and Sections 61(2) and (4) of the Constitutional Referendum Act. The case stems from the defendants allegedly posting a letter containing criticisms of the then draft constitution in local postboxes in Chiangmai, northern province in Thailand, prior to the referendum dated 7 August 2016. The casefile was previously transferred from the Military Court at the 33rd Army Barrack to the Provincial Court of Chiang Mai. In total, the preceding lasted three years and eight months.
The Court acquitted the 15 defendants of all charges. The ruling stated that the letter content deemed in violation of the law was written in good faith, did not constitute threats, aggression or rudeness, and was not for the purpose of inciting the public or cause public disorder. The letter was simply opinions of the defendants and subjected to the reader’s interpretation. The act therefore did not violate Article 116 of the Criminal Code or any offences under the Constitutional Referendum Act. The Court further saw that the defendants’ actions did not constitute a criminal society or carried out in secret, but only a logistical assistance done as favors. The actions thus did not fall under Articles 209 and 210 of the Criminal Code. All defendants were then acquitted.
(photo courtesy of TLHR)
- Chiang Rai Court overrules royal defamation allegations against an optometrist, citing unreliable evidence
On 31 March 2020, the Chiang Rai Court read a verdict on Mr. Sarawut (last name withheld) who was accused by intelligence personnel at the 37th Army Barrack of royal defamation and computer-related offence under Article 112 of the Criminal Code and the Computer Crime Act, respectively. The allegations stem from the optometrist‘s post of King Rama X portrait in July 2016. Later, on 30 September 2019, the case file was transferred from the Military Court of the 37th Army Barack to the Provincial Court of Chiang Rai. The preceding lasted more than three years and six months in total.
The court saw that the account used to post such portrait belonged to the defendant. However, the witnesses presented by the prosecutor could not confirm that the defendant carried out the action of posting the portrait. Upon examining the defendant’s electronic devices confiscated by the Technology Crime Suppression Division (TCSD), the police could not find the portrait posted. Expert witnesses also testified that Facebook posts could be photoshopped. Without the testimony of the intelligence military officer claiming to have witnessed the defendant’s action, the Court saw insufficient evidence to rule the defendant guilty. There optometrist was therefore acquitted.
(photo courtesy of TLHR)
- Supreme Court rejects appeal from Khon Kaen’s contempt of court case, agrees with Appeal Court’s verdict.
On 31 March 2020, the Khon Kaen Provincial Court, northeastern Thailand, read the Supreme Court’s verdict on the case where seven students and activists were charged with contempt of court. The case stems from the defendants reading a statement and poems and singing to raise concerns of the justice system and in solidarity with Mr. Jatupat Boonpattararaksa or ‘Pai Dao Din,’ then a defendant of the controversial royal defamation offence, in front of the Khon Kaen Provincial Court on 10 February 2017.
Previously, the Court of Appeal saw the seven defendants guilty as charged, to which the defendants appealed to a higher court. The Supreme Court decided that the Court of Appeal Region IV had considered all relevant legal provisions and facts and ruled a proper judgement. Therefore, the Supreme Court did not accept the appeal per Article 23, Verse 1, of The Charter of the Courts of Justice, rendering the case final by default after three years of proceedings.