Court acquitted “Thanet” of sedition, ruling that his criticisms against the political establishments constituted legitimate exercises of free speech as a Thai citizen

On 25 June 2020, at 9:00 AM, the Criminal Court was scheduled to deliver a ruling in the case against political activist Thanet Anantawong who was charged under Section 116 of the Criminal Code (sedition) and Section 14(3) of the 2007 Computer Crimes Act. According to the charges, he alleged published and shared five Facebook posts, which criticized the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) and the Royal Thai Army on his personal Facebook account in 2015.

Previously, the Bangkok Military Court adjudicated this case with significant undue delays. Before the government transferred the case into the civilian Criminal Court’s jurisdiction in 2019, the Military Court only managed to conduct the examination of three witnesses while Thanet had to remain in prison awaiting trials. After the last witness examination session took place during 12 and 14 May 2020, the Court set out to issue the verdict on this date.

(Photo from BBC Thai)

At 9:20 AM, Thanet was taken by corrections officers to a trial room. Approximately eight people were present to give him moral support. He expressed his appreciation and thanked every person who attended the verdict hearing on that day.

At 9:28 AM, the judge started delivering the verdict. The plaintiffs, including Major General Wijarn Jodtaeng and Police Major General Surasak Khunnarong, testified on 10 December 2015 that they were tasked by the National Council for Peace and Order to gather intelligence and stumble upon the Facebook account of the defendant, who was part of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship movement. They found that his posts were critical of late Privy Council President Prem Tinsulanonda, the army’s alleged involvement for the death in custody of “Mor Yong,” and corruption scandals related to Rajabhakti Park. He also invited the public to participate in the Loy Krathong Against Dictatorship event and to wear red and take a trip to Rajabhakti Park. The plaintiff claimed that these posts could trigger negative sentiments against the government among the public, thereby prompting a mass uprising to oust the government and creating public disorder.

Another witness from the plaintiffs’ side was Jade Thonawanik, who testified that Thanet’s posts instigated resistance against the state and could trigger a mass insurrection against the NCPO. The witness said that the defendant picked up on small matters and blew them out of proportion. Furthermore, he added that inviting people to wear red could incite against the monarchy because yellow represents the monarchy.

The Court noted that, according to the plaintiffs’ documents provided during the inquiry proceedings, Maj. Gen. Wijarn Jodtaeng and Pol. Maj. Gen. Surasak Khunnarong only found the defendant’s posts and received an order from their superiors to press charges against him. The plaintiffs added in their plea that the defendant participated in the anti-corruption protest trip to Rajabhakti Park to investigate into alleged corruption before being arrested and taken to the 11th Infantry Regiment. The Court further acknowledged that the plaintiffs had shown the defendant his own Facebook posts, then the defendant admitted that he posted those messages. Nonetheless, the plaintiffs did not provide any concrete proof that the people who saw the defendant’s posts decided to oppose, protest, or cause public unrest in any way.

Meanwhile, the Court regarded Jade Thonawanik’s testimony as his opinion towards the defendant’s posts, which did not substantiate the claim that the defendant’s acts could bring about public unrest in the Kingdom. Any reasonable persons have the freedom to agree or disagree with his posts. The Court pointed out that Jade responded to one of the defense lawyer’s questions that he only offered his personal opinions to the inquiry officer. However, he did not know the facts, and other people might have different perspectives.

Drawing upon the defendant’s testimony, the Court found that the defendant was merely one of the protestors, not the protest leader. Therefore, the posts were unlikely to intend to stir up any public insurrection; they were rather lawful exercises of his rights as a Thai citizen.

While the defendant’s Facebook posts challenged the political establishments at the time, his expression of opinions retained the spirit of the Constitution. Accordingly, the Court believed that the defendant did not intend to trigger public turmoil or insurrection that could lead to unrest in the Kingdom. Neither did the defendant violate any laws–it was a legitimate exercise of free speech. The plaintiffs’ evidence did not carry sufficient weight to warrant a guilty verdict. The Court, therefore, dismissed the charges and acquitted the defendant.

After the Court had finished delivering the verdict, Thanet bent down his head and started crying. Those who were observing the trial approached and congratulated him. He then had to wait to be taken back to the Bangkok Special Prison and subsequently released in the evening of the same day.

Thanet Anantawong or “Toon” is a 30-year-old man born in Uthai Thani province. He used to work as a motorcycle taxi driver. Before joining anti-coup activities against the NCPO, he participated in a big political demonstration of the Red Shirts in 2010. At that time, he was convicted of violating the Emergency Decree and sentenced to one year’s imprisonment.

It has been over four years and six months from the day Thanet was charged to the verdict date. He had been detained for almost three years and ten months, accounting for 1,396 days in total. This duration includes the four months he spent in prison due to the Military Court’s verdict concerning his anti-corruption protest trip to Rajabhakti Park. While in custody, he also lost his father. The long period of confinement deprived him of the opportunity to see his father before he passed away.

See more information about Thanet’s posts which allegedly violated the laws and other ruling cases under the NCPO:

The Miracle of “Law”: The Judiciary and the 22 May 2014 Coup Three Years of the Coup Regime of the National Council for Peace and Order

Eleven “Court” Contributions under the NCPO’s Regime in 2016