CHIANGRAI TIMES– Clare Florence, the Brisbane-raised businesswoman facing criminal defamation charges in Thailand, finds herself in a situation not unique to Australians conducting business in Thailand.
Ms Florence, who has been working in Thailand for more than 10 years, was arrested at Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Bangkok over charges of criminal defamation.
The 50-year-old faces the prospect of a 12 month prison sentence. But she isn’t the first Australian national to have such a heavy sentence hanging over their head.
Having undergone a similar ordeal in the country, Brisbane businessman Neil Herdegen said criminal defamation charges were commonly used as a scare tactic against business rivals in Thailand.
During a criminal trial in the country, Mr Herdegen made allegations against a former business partner who had attempted to remove his 50 per cent stake in the company Thai Style Auto Services Company Ltd.
The allegations of defamation Mr Herdegen put forward were dismissed and he in turn was arrested and charged with the offense.
Facing the prospect of paying a $10,000 bond for his release he spent the night in a Thai prison cell with some of the instigators of the 2010 riots.
For two years, he flew back and forth from Australia giving evidence at his trial.
“My passport was removed and travel restrictions placed on me. I negotiated through my lawyer to have those lifted and I returned to Thailand three months later to give more evidence,” he said.
“Each time I returned to give more evidence I had to surrender my passport and present myself at the court in shackles again.”
Concerned by what he calls the lack of transparency in the Thai judicial system, Mr Herdegen said he had been fearful of the result of the trial.
But he was eventually cleared of any wrong doing after the Thai judge ruled the allegations were a lawful attempt to gain legal control over his shares in the company.
Mr Herdegen claimed criminal defamation was a “potent weapon” in business disputes involving foreigners in Thailand.
“With legal costs, bail conditions, travel restrictions and the prospect of extended and highly intimidating thai criminal process foreigners are often at a considerable disadvantage in these types of legal battles,” he said.
“Added to this is the confusing and often non-transparent Thai criminal justice system and compounded by the weight of a possible 12-month stay in the Bangkok maximum security jail if found guilty, it’s often in the best interests of foreigners to admit guilt or flee the country.
“It’s hoped, because of a severity of the charges, any foreigner that has these charges, it’s in their best interest to settle and not go to court.
“Only someone like me would risk it and go down the avenue of having a full trial.”
Meanwhile, Ms Florence’s husband said the couple were concerned she could be trapped in Thailand for the rest of this year.
The prosecutor is not due to announce the outcome of his review into the case until June 25. But Bill Condie said the couple were working on having his wife’s no-fly blacklisting lifted in the meantime – a process which is proving emotionally harrowing and costly.
“Obviously the prospect of spending a year in a Thai prison when you haven’t done anything wrong is a terrifying one,” he said.
“We meet the lawyers again (today). They believe the case is totally without merit and hope at least to be able to get the courts to lift the travel ban. That way Clare could go about her business and return for the 25 June review.”
The charges against Ms Florence were brought by Malaysian businessman Ronald Wai Choi Ng, the former managing director of Tongkah Harbour.
Mr Ng is understood to have based the charge on allegations Ms Florence and Mr Wunderlich raised in a private business meeting last November.