Local residents face five to ten years in prison for peaceful assemblies

(LOEI, July 24, 2017)—Thailand authorities should drop all criminal charges against seven environmental defenders facing more than five years in prison for engaging in peaceful protests in Loei Province, Fortify Rights said today. The Loei Provincial Court will decide tomorrow, July 25, whether a case against seven women involved in a sit-in protest outside the local administrative council offices in November 2016 will go to trial.

The same court will also issue a verdict today against 22 environmental defenders involved in blocking a local road during a peaceful protest against the mine in Loei in 2013. The 22 defendants involved in the 2013 protest face up to 10 years’ imprisonment and/or a fine if convicted.

“These prosecutions are the latest attempt in Thailand to silence the legitimate work of environmental defenders,” said Amy Smith, Executive Director of Fortify Rights. “Enough is enough. The court should immediately drop these charges and the authorities should take steps to promote and protect environmental defenders.”

At 4 a.m. on November 16, 2016, more than 200 residents from Na Nong Bong village marched to the Khao Laung Sub-District Administrative Council Office in Loei Province, where the Council planned to meet to decide whether the controversial Tungkum Limited gold-mining company would be granted permission to use land in the area for mining operations. The residents staged a peaceful sit-in at the meeting space to voice their opposition to Tungkum Ltd.’s request and to call for the council to involve them in the decision-making process.

On March 8, 2017, Thai police in Wang Sa Pung District, Loei Province, charged the seven women, who are members of Khon Rak Ban Kerd Group (KRBKG)—a community-based environmental rights group—with allegedly violating Section 309 of the Thai Criminal Code. The seven accused women are Pornthip Hongchai, 46, Viron Rujichaiyavat, 46, Ranong Kongsaen, 55, Mon Khunna, 39, Suphat Khunna, 46, Boonraeng Srithong, 51, and Lumplearn Ruengrith, 56.

Section 309 prohibits “compelling another person to do or not do any act by putting them in fear of injury to life, body, liberty, reputation or property…” The authorities also separately charged Pornthip Hongchai for allegedly violating Article 10 of the 2015 Public Assembly Act for failing to notify the authorities of the gathering at least 24 hours before its commencement.

On June 13, 2017, the Thai police further charged all seven women with allegedly violating Article 8 of the 2015 Public Assembly Act, which prohibits holding a public gathering that obstructs gateways or services of the offices of government agencies.

If convicted, the seven women face a maximum sentence of five years and six months’ imprisonment and/or a fine of up to 100,000 Thai Baht (US$2,850). Pornthip faces an additional 10,000 Thai Baht (US$285) fine for allegedly failing to notify the authorities.

Local residents allege the mine contaminated soil and water, affecting their health, lives, and livelihoods. Government-led tests in 2008 confirmed local water supplies surrounding the mine were contaminated; however, the government said the cause of the contamination was “unclear” and may be due to “volcanic activities in the past.” KRBKG has consistently advocated for the mine’s permanent closure and rehabilitation of the local environment.

In addition to the current charges brought by the state, Tungkum Ltd. has brought 19 criminal and civil complaints initiated against villagers in Loei Province.

“We were peacefully exercising our right to express our concerns about the mine that we feel has harmed our community,” said Pornthip Hongchai, a leader of KRBKG who faces detention tomorrow. “We should be able to participate in decision making on development projects that affect our daily life and livelihoods, without repercussions.”

Twenty-two other environmental defenders in Loei Province also face potential imprisonment of up to 10 years beginning this week if the Loei Provincial Court finds them guilty of violating sections 38 and 39 of the 1992 Highway Act. The protesters are accused of criminally blocking the road to the mine site in protest in 2013.

Section 38 of the 1992 Highway Act prohibits anyone from “installing, erecting, or placing any materials which may cause disruption or harm to vehicles commuting on public roads, or causing any damage to public ways without permission from the designated authorities.” Section 39 prohibits anyone “from blocking public roads or placing any sharp objects or any objects on public roads which may cause harm or damage to vehicles or commuters using the roads.”

Under international human rights law, states have an obligation to protect the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Thailand is a party, and the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders protect human rights defenders in the context of their work, including their rights to peaceful assembly and expression. 

With regard to peaceful assemblies, international law, including article 21 of the ICCPR, permits state authorities to restrict peaceful assemblies only when restrictions are provided by law, proportional, and necessary to accomplish a legitimate aim. According to the Human Rights Committee, the organizers of an assembly “generally have the right to choose a location within sight and sound of their target audience”, a position which is supported by the Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association, and others. Courts such as the European Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights have stated that authorities must display “tolerance” to demonstrations in public spaces that cause disruptions. Moreover, criminal penalties for peaceful protests that temporarily block access to a public building or roads are considered a disproportionate penalty under international law.

Provisions of Thailand’s 2015 Public Assembly Act are also incompatible with international law. For example, in March 2017, the U.N. Human Rights Committee—a body of independent experts that monitors states’ compliance with the ICCPR—expressed concern with the prior notification provision of the 2015 Public Assembly Act and called on Thailand to avoid restrictions that are not compliant with the ICCPR.

In a joint report to the Human Rights Council in February 2016, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association and the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions also stated that “[w]here there has been a failure to properly notify, organizers, community or political leaders should not be subject to criminal or administrative sanctions resulting in fines or imprisonment.”

Thailand should immediately amend the 2015 Peaceful Assembly Act to bring it in line with international standards and ensure it protects the rights to peaceful assembly, said Fortify Rights.

“Some residents in Loei are spending more time with lawyers and in courthouses than with their families and farms,” said Amy Smith. “It’s time for Thailand to prioritize protection and end reprisals and restrictions against environmental defenders.”

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