End judicial harassment of mining-affected communities in Loei Province 

(Loei, October 13, 2016)—Thai authorities should protect the rights to peaceful assembly and expression of human rights defenders on trial for protesting a gold mine in Loei Province, Fortify Rights said today.

The trial against Mr. Surapun Rujichaiyavat, 44, and Ms. Pornthip Hongchai, 46, began yesterday and is scheduled to conclude today at the Loei Provincial Court. The defendants are charged with “disturbing the peaceful possession”—or trespassing—of an open-pit gold mine of Tungkum Limited that appeared to be no longer in operation. The defendants deny the charges. The Court is expected to issue a decision on November 25, 2016.

“Fundamental freedoms are at stake here. Basic rights should not be subjugated in response to harmless acts,” said Amy Smith, Executive Director of Fortify Rights. “Environmental defenders in Loei are all too familiar with facing legal actions for protesting the gold mine. This is yet one more case in a string of lawsuits.”

The defendants allegedly erected green flags at the site and used lime powder to write “Close the Mine and Rehabilitate” on the ground surrounding the open-pit mine on May 14, 2015. At the time of the alleged incident, permission from the Forest Department and the Agricultural Land Reform Office for the company to operate this mine site and use the land was under consideration for renewal. The renewal process is still pending at the time of writing. A company representative filed an initial complaint against the defendants in May 2015 at a local police station, and the authorities subsequently determined that the case should proceed to trial. 

The defendants are members of Khon Rak Ban Kerd Group (KRBKG), a community-based group formed by villagers from six communities surrounding the gold mine in Wang Sa Pung District, Loei Province. The group advocates for environmental protections and has protested for years against the local gold mining operation.

Human rights lawyers from the Community Resource Centre Foundation are providing the defendants with pro-bono legal representation. This is the fifth lawsuit that Tungkum Ltd. has brought or initiated against human rights defender Pornthip Hongchai, one of the two defendants in this case. 

“I’m tired because there are several lawsuits brought against the villagers. It wastes time that we would spend making a living,” Pornthip Hongchai told Fortify Rights. “But no matter how tired we are, we cannot retreat. We are working to protect our communities from pollution so that the generations born after us will have access to clean water, clean rice, and clean air, free from pollution.”

On May 24, 2016, the Loei Provincial Prosecutor indicted the two defendants and other villagers, alleging violations of section 83, 362, and 365 of the Thai Criminal Code. These sections define the crime of trespass, which carries a penalty of up to five years’ imprisonment and/or a fine of up to 10,000 Thai Baht (US $285).

This case is one of 19 criminal and civil complaints initiated against villagers in Loei Province by Tungkum Ltd.

For instance, in November 2015, the company filed criminal defamation complaints against a 15-year-old Thai schoolgirl and the Thai Public Broadcasting Service (Thai PBS) for their respective involvement in producing a news clip that mentioned alleged environmental impacts of the mine. One out of two complaints against the schoolgirl was dropped, and on October 3 and 10, the Bangkok Criminal Court completed preliminary hearings to consider the merits of the company’s complaints against Thai PBS and will issue a decision on whether the case will proceed to trial on November 16.

Under international human rights law, states have an obligation to protect the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression. The U.N. Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association has noted with concern the use of aggravated trespass, particularly by private companies, to curtail the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and he has applauded courts that prioritize these human rights when they appear to be targeted by private interests.

“This case presents an opportunity to reverse course in Loei and affirm that basic rights cannot be easily trumped,” said Amy Smith. “Judicial harassment needs to end. Dropping these charges would be a step in the right direction.”

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