End the use of defamation, judicial harassment to silence critics

(Bangkok, March 30, 2016)—Gold-mining company Tungkum Ltd. should immediately and unconditionally drop all defamation-related charges against six human rights defenders allegedly involved in erecting anti-gold-mining signs in Thailand’s Loei Province, Fortify Rights said today. The six human rights defenders are core members of the Khon Rak Ban Kerd Group (KRBKG)—a community-based group committed to defending the local environment from negative impacts of the gold mine.

The Loei Provincial Court is expected to deliver a verdict this morning in a civil defamation case brought by Tungkum Ltd. against the six KRBKG members for erecting signs at the Na Nong Bong village entrance gate and along the main road within the village, calling for the closure of the controversial mine and rehabilitation of the local environment. 

Tungkum Ltd. is seeking 50 million Thai Baht ($1.4 million) in compensation from the six KRBKG members for alleged damage to the company’s reputation.

“The company is on a legal rampage to silence its critics,” said Amy Smith, Executive Director of Fortify Rights. “If Tungkum Ltd. is truly concerned about its reputation, it should re-think its business and legal strategy and drop these charges.”

The six villagers charged in this case are Mr. Surapun Rujichaiyavat, Ms. Viron Rujichaiyavat, Mr. Konglai Phakmee, Mr. Samai Phakmee, Ms. Pornthip Hongchai, and Ms. Mon Khunna, who are living in communities surrounding the Tungkum Ltd. open-pit copper-gold mine.

On March 10, the company dropped a separate criminal defamation complaint against Surapun Rujichaiyavat, who was accused of harming the company’s reputation by allegedly posting on Facebook a petition letter demanding an investigation into the legality of the mining concession and transport of ore from the mine site. In that case, Surapun Rujichaiyavat faced up to one-year imprisonment or a fine of up to 20,000 Thai Baht (US $5,600) under Section 326 of the Thai Criminal Code as well as up to five years’ imprisonment or a fine of up to 100,000 Thai Baht (US $2,810) under the Computer Crime Act.

“These lawsuits are not an individual matter, but a public matter, and everyone in our community has been affected,” Surapun Rujichaiyavat told Fortify Rights.

Villagers from six communities surrounding the mine formed KRBKG in 2007 to advocate for a clean environment and to oppose the mining operation. On March 7, the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand honored women of the KRBKG with a prestigious women human rights defenders award for their role in bringing much-needed attention to critical human rights problems in Thailand.

KRBKG members exercised their right to freedom of opinion and expression by erecting anti-mining signs within the village in Loei Province, and these actions constitute the legitimate work of human rights defenders, which Thailand has a duty to protect, Fortify Rights said.

Fortify Rights also called on the Government of Thailand to decriminalize defamation. Under international law, criminal penalties, and particularly imprisonment, are considered disproportionate forms of punishment for defamation. In Thailand, defamation laws tend to effectively restrict legitimate forms of speech, violating the right to freedom of expression and infringing on other fundamental rights.

Tungkum Ltd. has brought at least 19 criminal and civil lawsuits against 33 members of the KRBKG and other villagers in the past seven years, including the six members awaiting today’s verdict. Through these lawsuits, the company has sought 320 million Thai Baht (US$9 million) from villagers in Loei. Currently, eight criminal and civil cases involving at least 25 villagers are pending.

Most recently, the company filed criminal defamation complaints against  a 15-year-old Thai schoolgirl and the Thai Public Broadcasting Service (Thai PBS). On March 21, the Bangkok Criminal Court postponed the merit hearing in the Thai PBS case to May 30, 2016.

In 2015, the Central Bankruptcy Court in Thailand ordered Tungkum Ltd. to undergo a “business rehabilitation process.” In February 2016, Tongkah Harbour—the parent company of Tungkum Ltd.—announced plans to begin mining operations in Laos and Myanmar.

“Businesses have a responsibility to promote and protect human rights,” said Amy Smith, Executive Director of Fortify Rights. “The company should drop all unwarranted charges against human rights defenders and end this outrageous legal campaign against fundamental freedoms, which is ultimately harmful to Thailand.”

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