Thailand: Phuketwan Trial Wraps Up

By BenarNews Staff
2015.07.16
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150717-TH-morison-620 Phuketwan editor Alan Morison talks to BenarNews outside the Phuket Provincial Court building, July 16, 2015.
BenarNews

Updated at 10:50 a.m. ET on 2015-07-17

Two southern Thailand journalists will find out on Sept. 1 whether they will be acquitted or convicted on a criminal defamation charge, after their three-day trial at the Phuket Provincial Court ended Thursday.

For a second day running, prosecutors declined to cross-examine witnesses for the defense, including the two defendants, and they also waived the right to sit any representatives on the prosecution’s bench in order to monitor the courtroom proceedings.

“If the prosecutors could not be bothered to come and cross-examine the main defense witnesses, their flimsy arguments were clearly no match for what was a well-argued and solid defense,” Benjamin Ismaïl, head of the Asia-Pacific bureau of Reporters Without Borders, who attended the trial as an observer, said in a statement.

Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian, editors of Phuketwan, a news website based on the southern Thai island of Phuket, are accused of defaming the Royal Thai Navy in a July 2013 article that linked naval personnel to people-smuggling.

The particular paragraph that sparked their legal troubles was an excerpt of a Reuters report on human trafficking.

The two have also been charged under Thailand’s Computer Crimes Act of 2007 for disseminating the alleged defamatory content via the internet. If convicted of both charges, Morison and Chutima could each go to prison for up to seven years.

Rohingya witness

Among those who took the stand Thursday was Abdul Kalam, a Rohingya Muslim who heads a Thai-based foundation dedicated to assisting Rohingyas who transit through Thailand from Myanmar to Malaysia on sea and land journeys that are often arranged by human traffickers.

Speaking in fluent Thai, Kalam told the judge he was living legally in Thailand and working in the food industry.

He also assists Thai officials as a translator and has interviewed scores of Rohingya refugees.

Refugees told him that they had witnessed “navy vessels” intercept their boats in the waters of Thailand’s Ranong, Phang Nga, Phuket and Satun provinces, and then telephone the leader of a trafficking ring, who was an ethnic Rohingya.

After several hours, the ringleader would appear and “buy” the refugees before coordinating to smuggle them into neighboring Malaysia, Kalam testified.

When the judge asked him “which navy” was involved, Kalam replied, “The Royal Thai Navy.”

Lost in translation

After the trial, Morison, the founder of Phuketwan, told BenarNews that he was pleased with how the trial had put a spotlight on press freedom in Thailand and the plight of Rohingya refugees, which his website has covered diligently.

He said he hoped for a verdict that would be fair and acceptable to both sides.

Morison contends that the case boils down to some mistranslated words.

The Thai navy mistranslated into the Thai language the offending excerpt from the Reuters’ report, which was published in English on Phuketwan, he alleges.

The original English version stated that “Thai naval forces” were involved in human smuggling, whereas the translated version implicated the entire “Royal Thai Navy,” according to Morison.

Cmdr. Thanom Lumzaie, deputy chief of the Third Naval Command’s Judge Advocate Division, explained the navy’s case against Phuketwan.

“Once we saw the article appear on the Phuketwan website, we deemed it as defamatory and proceeded with legal and English-language experts before filing a formal complaint with Wichit district police,” he said on Wednesday, Day Two of the trial.

Since the alleged defamatory statement was disseminated via the internet, charges were also filed under the Computer Crimes Act.

“It is just like when you post something on Facebook that ruins another party’s reputation. If that person seeks justice, you face the possibility of being sued. It is that easy,” Thanom said.

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