Bangkok Court acquits three women human rights defenders of criminal defamation

(BANGKOK, August 29, 2023)–The new Thai government should urgently decriminalize defamation and protect human rights defenders from judicial harassment, said Fortify Rights today. In a verdict read today, the Bangkok South Criminal Court acquitted three women human rights defenders—Angkhana Neelapaijit, Puttanee Kangkun, and Thanaporn Saleephol—of criminal defamation charges brought by the controversial Thai poultry company Thammakaset Company Limited.  

“I welcome today’s ruling upholding our rights. But regardless of the result, the last four years have been painful for each of us. Thammakaset’s harassment consumed our time, resources, and spirits,” said Puttanee Kangkun, Director at The Fort and former Senior Human Rights Specialist at Fortify Rights. “Thai authorities should prevent businesses like Thammakaset from engaging in judicial harassment to attempt to silence activists who speak against injustice.”

“Despite today’s favorable ruling, no one wins in cases of judicial harassment,” said Amy Smith, Executive Director at Fortify Rights. “Thai authorities should ensure cases of judicial harassment are not allowed to proceed. Decriminalizing defamation would be a significant step for Thailand to demonstrate its commitment to preventing judicial harassment.”

Today’s ruling comes nearly four years after Thammakaset filed criminal complaints against the women. The complaints focus on 30 posts or re-posts on social media that contain messages of solidarity for human rights defenders facing lawsuits brought by the company. 

The acquitted women include: Angkhana Neelapaijit, a member of the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance and a former National Human Rights Commissioner of Thailand; Puttanee Kangkun, former Senior Human Rights Specialist at Fortify Rights and current Director of The Fort in Bangkok; and Thanaporn Saleephol, a former Communications Associate at Fortify Rights. 

Thammakaset may appeal the Bangkok South Criminal Court’s decision within the next 30 days.

Since 2016, Thammakaset has brought at least 37 complaints against 22 human rights defenders. The courts have dismissed or ruled against the company in most cases.

“SLAPP [Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation] actions inflict economic and psychological harm on individuals and poison the environment for civil society and democracy in Thailand,” wrote Puttanee Kangkun in an opinion editorial in Nikkei Asia on August 25, 2023. “When Thailand’s new government is finally formed, its agenda should include an early move to end SLAPP suits to protect human rights defenders.”

The 2017 Constitution of Thailand protects the right to freedom of expression, as does Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Thailand is a state party.

Defamation under sections 326 and 328 of the Thai Criminal Code includes penalties of imprisonment of up to two years and a fine of up to 200,000 Thai Baht (US$5,700). Under international law, imprisonment is considered disproportionate, excessive, and unnecessary punishment for acts of defamation, and custodial penalties have a chilling effect on freedom of expression.

In March 2023, the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand released its 2022 human rights report, recognizing that SLAPPs prevent human rights defenders from conducting their work and can continue for years. The Commission recommended that the Thai government enact a law to prevent SLAPP suits and ensure human rights defenders receive adequate protection from SLAPP.  

In October 2019, Thailand was the first country in Asia to develop a National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights (NAP), committing to protect human rights defenders and prevent judicial harassment. In 2022, the Rights and Liberties Protection Department under the Ministry of Justice introduced a draft second-phase NAP for 2023-2027. The draft focuses on improving the policies and measures to protect human rights defenders from SLAPP suits, including by raising awareness about the importance of the work of human rights defenders.

“The incoming Cabinet promised the Thai people a ‘people-oriented’ government,” said Puttanee Kangkun. “The new government should act on these promises by creating a safe environment that enables its citizens to disseminate and share information benefitting the Thai society.”

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