Three human rights activists in Thailand have finally been declared not guilty in a trial lasting almost four years. Their alleged crime? Posting comments online in support of exploited migrant workers.
Thailand’s defamation laws have been deemed contentious for their stifling effect on free speech and their disproportionate favor towards plaintiffs. Defendants often bear the brunt of costs and efforts, even when allegations are baseless. These laws have been used to silence journalists, activists, and critics.
Jonathan Head for the BBC reports,
“I can’t say I am happy with the verdict because I don’t think I did anything wrong from the beginning, and the plaintiff shouldn’t even sue me,” said one of the defendants, Angkhana Neelapaijit, after leaving the court.
A member of Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission, she faced a jail term for up to eight years. She was cleared along with Puttanee Kangkun and Thanaporn Saleelphol.
It took the court nearly four years since the defamation complaint was filed to reach what looks like an almost inevitable verdict. For the defendants it has been a stressful and costly ordeal. Ms Angkhana has been campaigning against injustices since her husband, Somchai, a human rights lawyer, was abducted and disappeared 19 years ago. She has been appointed to the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances.
The persecution of workers’ rights advocates
This is the 36th defamation lawsuit Thammakaset has lost.
In late June 2016, 14 migrant workers escaped a chicken farm in the Lopburi region of Thailand. Their reports of harsh treatment, exhaustive hours and despicable work conditions made instant headlines. The Freedom United community rallied around these migrant workers launching a campaign in 2016, which grew to over 88,000 people, calling on Betagro and the Thai Broiler Processing Exporters Association to ensure that all workers are fairly treated and not face industry retaliation for speaking out about labor violations.
Though the workers won compensation from Thammakaset in court, the company was found not guilty of human rights violations and, worse, they faced defamation charges for bringing their abuses to light. In 2019 Freedom United signed a joint letter to Thailand’s Prime Minister, joining with 88 international, regional, and local organizations from around the world seeking the dismissal of charges.
Similarly, activist and journalist Andy Hall was also slapped with a lawsuit for his activism on behalf of workers at a Thai pineapple processing plant, Natural Fruit.
Hall’s legal battle with the company spanned eight years, finally coming to a close on in 2021 when the Supreme Court of Thailand cleared him of all charges in the last remaining case brought against him by Thai pineapple company Natural Fruit. Hundreds of thousands of people in the Freedom United community advocated for Hall. His case even attracted the attention of UN human rights experts, who criticized the lawsuits brought against him, saying that they were an example of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs). Though Hall was successful, by the time of his ruling, he was exhausted just as today’s activists feel even with their “win.”
Angkhana told the BBC, “We’ve wasted four years. We’ve spent so much money on hiring lawyers or travelling costs. It’s been such a trauma, it affects my mental [health] and my work. This is something that cannot be measured.”