Thai court acquits three rights activists of criminal defamation

Nontarat Phaicharoen
Thai court acquits three rights activists of criminal defamation From left, human rights activists Thanaporn Saleephol, Puttanee Kangkun and Angkhana Neelapaijit pose after their acquittal, Aug. 29, 2023.
Handout/Fortify Rights

A Thai court on Tuesday acquitted three human rights defenders of criminal defamation charges in a case that activists say highlights how companies and officials are using “judicial harassment” to try to silence public criticism.

The Bangkok South Criminal Court found Angkhana Neelapaijit, Puttanee Kangkun and Thanaporn Saleephol not guilty of criminally defaming Thammakaset Company Ltd., which sued the trio for posting messages on social media that expressed solidarity with rights activists facing lawsuits from the firm.

“I welcome today’s ruling upholding our rights. But regardless of the result, the last four years have been painful for each of us,” said Puttanee, director at The Fort, an affiliate organization of Fortify Rights. “Thammakaset’s harassment consumed our time, resources and spirits.”

The case against the women stemmed from an investigation into allegations of labor abuse at a Thammakaset chicken farm in Lop Buri province in 2016. Employees from Myanmar alleged the company forced them to work for more than 20 hours a day and deducted money from their salaries.

The provincial labor office found Thammakaset guilty and ordered it to repay the workers 1.7 million baht (U.S. $48,200).

But the company then launched criminal complaints against individuals who spoke up about the abuses and later against rights defenders who showed solidarity with them.

Since 2016, Thammakaset has filed 39 criminal and civil cases against 23 defendants – including activists, workers and journalists – for alleged defamation of the company, according to the International Federation for Human Rights.

The complaints against Angkhana, Puttanee and Thanaporn focused on 30 posts or re-posts on social media that contained messages supporting fellow human rights defenders. Many of them had links to a report and video published online by Fortify Rights about Thammakaset.

Chanchai Permpol, the owner of Thammakaset Farm, about 160 km (100 miles) north of Bangkok, said in 2016 he took legal action to defend his hard-earned reputation.

Though the verdict is a small victory for workers’ rights advocates in Thailand, few of those involved in the case are celebrating.

“I don't feel it's a victory. I feel nothing because we should not have been sued at all,” said  Angkhana. “The effects cannot be quantified – the time wasted, lawyer fees paid. The case does not end there but can be appealed to the Supreme Court.”

For rights activists, the bigger issue is the continued use of Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, known as SLAPP suits, to silence criticism from civil society in Thailand.

Puttanee said the Thai government should immediately repeal criminal defamation provisions in the legal code, which allowed businesses like Thammakaset to engage in “judicial harassment.”

In March, the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand released a report which recommended that the Thai government enact a law to prevent SLAPP suits and ensure human rights defenders receive adequate protection from SLAPP. 

Rights advocates say the government must act now to safeguard free speech.

“Thai authorities should ensure cases of judicial harassment are not allowed to proceed,” said Amy Smith, executive director at Fortify Rights. “Decriminalizing defamation would be a significant step for Thailand to demonstrate its commitment to preventing judicial harassment.”


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