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THAILAND: Court to read verdict in landmark freedom of expression case of Chiranuch Premchaiporn – call for observers

May 29, 2012



Urgent Appeal Update: AHRC-UAU-017-2012

29 May 2012
[RE: AHRC-STM-099-2012: THAILAND: Concerns over delayed verdict in criminal case against free media advocate]
THAILAND: Court to read verdict in landmark freedom of expression case of Chiranuch Premchaiporn – call for observers

ISSUES: freedom of expression, internet liberty, human rights defenders

Dear friends,

On 30 May 2012, at 10 am in the Criminal Court in Bangkok, the verdict in the case of Chiranuch Premchaiporn, charged with ten counts of allegedly violating the 2007 Computer Crimes Act in Black Case No. 1667/2553, will be read. The reading, which had been scheduled for one month ago, was unexpectedly postponed. The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) urges all concerned persons to attend the court as observers, and calls on other interested persons to follow the case closely.


The formal proceedings against Chiranuch Premchaiporn, the 44-year-old webmaster Prachatai, an independent online news site, began on 3 March 2009, when the Criminal Court issued a warrant for her arrest. On 5 March 2009, a warrant to search the Prachatai office was issued and the next day police from the Crime Suppression Division raided the office and arrested Chiranuch in response to one complaint of her alleged violation of the vaguely worded, anti-democratic Computer Crimes Act (CCA), which an unelected legislature operating under a military-appointed government passed in 2007. The police released Chiranuch later that evening, but the next month nine further complaints were brought against her. On 31 March 2010, the Office of the Attorney General proceeded with the prosecution and she was arrested and held at the Criminal Court before again being released on bail.

Reading the above account, we might infer that Chiranuch had published some highly inflammatory, dangerous or secret material on the Prachatai site that warranted the heavy involvement of specialist police and state prosecutors and a series of events involving a raid and detention. In fact, her crime was to have not done something: to have failed to remove 10 comments alleged to be injurious to the monarchy from the Prachatai webboard quickly enough. Her alleged crime, to underscore the point, was that she removed the comments, which consisted of allusions rather than direct references to the royal family, with insufficient rapidity.

Examination of the specific provisions of the 2007 Computer Crimes Act under which these bizarre allegations were brought does not help us to clarify the thinking of those responsible for the prosecution of Chiranuch Premchaiporn. Under section 14 of the CCA, anyone can be jailed for five years if found to have imported to a computer "false computer data in a manner that it is likely to damage the country's security or cause a public panic… [or] any computer data related with an  offence against the Kingdom's security under the Criminal Code". Under its section 15, the service provider found to have consented to the use of the computer for this purpose is equally liable as the person committing the offence, which in the case of Chiranuch is the crime of lese majesty, as stipulated in section 112 of the Criminal Code, that, "Whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent, shall be punished (with) imprisonment of three to fifteen years." The broad, vague provisions of the CCA, and the imprecise way in which it can be linked with equally vague provisions of the Criminal Code dealing with national security, post clear and direct threats to the rights of citizens in Thailand. The very basis of the allegations against Chiranuch Premchaiporn -- that not removing comments deemed to defame, insult, or threaten the monarchy, itself an allegation that is unclear, is a threat to national security -- threatens to make a mockery of the Court and the meaning of justice in Thailand.

The trial hearings occurred in February and September 2011, and February 2012, and summaries by Freedom Against Censorship-Thailand are available on the campaign webpage that the AHRC has set up for Chiranuch. As these show, much of the testimony turned on the interpretation of how the comments that she removed tardily, in the opinion of the police and prosecutor, constitute criminal content in the meaning of the law. Whether or not a written comment on a webpage or link to an image or video is "likely to damage the country's security or cause a public panic" is necessarily fraught with difficulty, even more so as the Computer Crimes Act does not specify what might constitute a likelihood to damage the country's security or create a public panic, or even define "security" or "public panic". What any of these terms mean, it seems, comes down to the opinion of the judge in the individual case. No standards exist to which we can refer. What is clear, however, are the effects of this legislation and the absence of clear standards contained. Chiranuch Premchaiporn, a long-standing human rights defender and media activist, has been forced to endure three years of harassment and fear by the Thai state security and legal apparatus.  In addition, during a critical period in Thailand’s modern history, the Prachatai webboard, a crucial site of discussion and debate, was forced to shut down, for fear that both users and more of its staff members could face additional prosecution.

The hearings in Chiranuch's case ended in February 2012 and the reading of the verdict was set for 30 April 2012. However, 20 minutes before the proceedings were to begin, court staff notified Chiranuch and her lawyers that the decision would be delayed for an additional month. The rather dubious reason given by the court for the delay was that the judges had too many documents to read, and was unable to complete preparing the verdict in time for the scheduled date. In a previous statement released at the time of the postponement (AHRC-STM-099-2012), the AHRC noted that both the delay to this case and the explanation for the delay were sources of serious concern. Whether caused by the court's inefficiency, overwork of the judges, or a more specious strategy to subject Chiranuch Premchaiporn to additional harassment and suffering.

On the eve of the re-scheduled reading of the verdict in this case, the Asian Human Rights Commission calls on the Criminal Court to ensure that no further delays are caused in the reading of this verdict, and that the trial be conducted openly, honestly and justly. In particular, given the unclarities and lacunae in the Computer Crimes Act, the onus is on the judges to act in the service of justice.
The AHRC urges all those persons and organisations concerned with human rights and freedom of expression in Thailand to return to the Criminal Court on 30 May 2012 for the re-scheduled reading of the decision to observe action in either the service of justice, or to witness its foreclosure.

(Visit the AHRC webpage on Chiranuch Premchaiporn at: http://www.humanrights.asia/campaigns/chiranuch-prachatai.)

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Extended Introduction: Urgent Appeals, theory and practice

A need for dialogue

Many people across Asia are frustrated by the widespread lack of respect for human rights in their countries.  Some may be unhappy about the limitations on the freedom of expression or restrictions on privacy, while some are affected by police brutality and military killings.  Many others are frustrated with the absence of rights on labour issues, the environment, gender and the like. 

Yet the expression of this frustration tends to stay firmly in the private sphere.  People complain among friends and family and within their social circles, but often on a low profile basis. This kind of public discourse is not usually an effective measure of the situation in a country because it is so hard to monitor. 

Though the media may cover the issues in a broad manner they rarely broadcast the private fears and anxieties of the average person.  And along with censorship – a common blight in Asia – there is also often a conscious attempt in the media to reflect a positive or at least sober mood at home, where expressions of domestic malcontent are discouraged as unfashionably unpatriotic. Talking about issues like torture is rarely encouraged in the public realm.

There may also be unwritten, possibly unconscious social taboos that stop the public reflection of private grievances.  Where authoritarian control is tight, sophisticated strategies are put into play by equally sophisticated media practices to keep complaints out of the public space, sometimes very subtly.  In other places an inner consensus is influenced by the privileged section of a society, which can control social expression of those less fortunate.  Moral and ethical qualms can also be an obstacle.

In this way, causes for complaint go unaddressed, un-discussed and unresolved and oppression in its many forms, self perpetuates.  For any action to arise out of private frustration, people need ways to get these issues into the public sphere.

Changing society

In the past bridging this gap was a formidable task; it relied on channels of public expression that required money and were therefore controlled by investors.  Printing presses were expensive, which blocked the gate to expression to anyone without money.  Except in times of revolution the media in Asia has tended to serve the well-off and sideline or misrepresent the poor.

Still, thanks to the IT revolution it is now possible to communicate with large audiences at little cost.  In this situation there is a real avenue for taking issues from private to public, regardless of the class or caste of the individual.

Practical action

The AHRC Urgent Appeals system was created to give a voice to those affected by human rights violations, and by doing so, to create a network of support and open avenues for action.  If X’s freedom of expression is denied, if Y is tortured by someone in power or if Z finds his or her labour rights abused, the incident can be swiftly and effectively broadcast and dealt with. The resulting solidarity can lead to action, resolution and change. And as more people understand their rights and follow suit, as the human rights consciousness grows, change happens faster. The Internet has become one of the human rights community’s most powerful tools.   

At the core of the Urgent Appeals Program is the recording of human rights violations at a grass roots level with objectivity, sympathy and competence. Our information is firstly gathered on the ground, close to the victim of the violation, and is then broadcast by a team of advocates, who can apply decades of experience in the field and a working knowledge of the international human rights arena. The flow of information – due to domestic restrictions – often goes from the source and out to the international community via our program, which then builds a pressure for action that steadily makes its way back to the source through his or her own government.   However these cases in bulk create a narrative – and this is most important aspect of our program. As noted by Sri Lankan human rights lawyer and director of the Asian Human Rights Commission, Basil Fernando:

"The urgent appeal introduces narrative as the driving force for social change. This idea was well expressed in the film Amistad, regarding the issue of slavery. The old man in the film, former president and lawyer, states that to resolve this historical problem it is very essential to know the narrative of the people. It was on this basis that a court case is conducted later. The AHRC establishes the narrative of human rights violations through the urgent appeals. If the narrative is right, the organisation will be doing all right."

Patterns start to emerge as violations are documented across the continent, allowing us to take a more authoritative, systemic response, and to pinpoint the systems within each country that are breaking down. This way we are able to discover and explain why and how violations take place, and how they can most effectively be addressed. On this path, larger audiences have opened up to us and become involved: international NGOs and think tanks, national human rights commissions and United Nations bodies.  The program and its coordinators have become a well-used tool for the international media and for human rights education programs. All this helps pave the way for radical reforms to improve, protect and to promote human rights in the region.