PHUKET – Thailand’s much-criticized record on human-smuggling is set to come under a fresh spotlight as two Phuket-based journalists face jail for alleging navy involvement in the trade.
Thai Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha’s ruling military Junta has refused to pull back from the trial starting on Tuesday of Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian of the Phuketwan news website, despite heavy criticism from international human rights and journalists’ groups.
Alan Morison, the editor of online news website Phuketwan, and colleague Chutima Sidasathian, have been charged with criminal defamation and breaches of the Thai Computer Crimes Act.
If found guilty Mr Morison, 67, and Ms Chutima face lengthy jail terms of up to seven years, as well as fines. The charges were brought by the Royal Thai Navy, after Phuketwan in 2013 republished exerts of a Reuters news agency report alleging links between Thai security forces and the smuggling of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar.
Despite direct representations for the charges to be dropped to Thai Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha from Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Australian Ambassador Paul Robilliard.
The editor of Thailand-based online news site Phuketwan and his colleague Chutima “Oi” Sidasathian, 34, are charged over reprinting 41 words from an award winning story by wire service Reuters on the human trafficking and slavery of Burmese migrants.
Reuters reporters received a Pulitzer Prize for journalism for their investigation.
Mediation efforts have failed to settle the dispute, with human rights groups calling for the charges to be dropped. Mr Morison says he and Ms Chutima are ready to stand trial, ahead of the court hearing in Phuket on Tuesday.
“We’ve always been prepared for the consequences, and we hope that justice prevails and that we’re found innocent fairly speedily on the basis of the evidence,” Mr Morison told AAP.
The court hearing comes just two months after Thai authorities uncovered mass graves, mostly of Rohingya Muslims, in border regions between Thailand and Malaysia. Thai investigations have since led to the arrest of more than 70 people – including local government officials – for involvement in human trafficking.
International rights groups and journalists associations have voiced their support for the Phuketwan journalists. The International Commission of Jurists called the criminal prosecution a violation of international law.
Executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, Joel Simon, said the legal threat against Morison and Chutima is intended to discourage journalists from probing the politically sensitive issue of human trafficking in Thailand.
Mr Morison and Ms Chutima face three days of hearings this week, with a final judicial ruling expected within 30 days.
The heads of the Australian Embassy’s political and consular sections Sarah Roberts and Kirsten Fletcher will attend the trial on behalf of the Australian Government.