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July 16, 2015 - Updated on January 20, 2016

Prosecutors skip last two days of Phuketwan defamation trial


The three-day trial of two English-language website journalists accused of defaming the Royal Thai Navy and violating the Computer Crimes Act was conducted in the absence of prosecutors representing the Royal Thai Navy on the second and third days.
As a result, the trial of Alan Morison, the Australian editor of the news website Phuketwan, and Chutima Sidasathian, one of his Thai reporters, ended at midday today in the southwestern province of Phuket after the defence witnesses were heard. The court is to issue its verdict on 1 September. The absence of the prosecutors yesterday and today, for which no explanation was given, underscored the weakness of the prosecution’s case. In their absence, Morison and Chutima were questioned by the presiding judge and the eight lawyers who flanked him. “If the prosecutors could not be bothered to come and cross-examine the main defence witnesses, their flimsy arguments were clearly no match for what was a well-argued and solid defence,” said Benjamin Ismaïl, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Asia-Pacific Bureau, who attended the trial as an observer. “As a result of the prosecution case’s weakness, some of its points were not even raised by the president judge.” During the trial, which has had a great deal of national and international media coverage, the two defendants have received support from Human Rights Watch, the South East Asia Press Alliance and the Bangkok office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Several NGOs also released an open letter to the prime minister, Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha, calling on the Royal Thai Navy to drop the charges. The two journalists are facing up to seven years in prison as a result of what Morison has called an “ambush” by the authorities. At the end of the first day of the trial, he nonetheless said he felt “very positive” and praised the defence team. On the first day, the defence cross-examined the four prosecution witnesses about their evaluation of the July 2013 Phuketwan article that prompted the charges. The article quoted a paragraph from a Reuters special report claiming that certain members of the Thai navy were benefiting from the smuggling of Rohingya refugees from neighbouring Burma to Malaysia via Thailand. The prosecution witnesses admitted that they had no problem with the Phuketwan article aside from the quote from the Reuters report, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2014 and which never led to charges being brought against Reuters by the Thai authorities. The defence, which was very professional and effective in the presentation of its arguments, demonstrated that the identity of the persons who posted the article online could not be established with certainty. Identification is a requirement for a prosecution under the Computer Crimes Act. The defence then pointed out that the term “naval forces” used in the Reuters report had been wrongly translated into Thai as “Royal Thai Navy” by the Royal Thai Navy’s translator and that, as the Royal Thai Navy had not been named, it could not be held to have been defamed. Yesterday, Morison and Chutima answered questions by the defence and the judge about their journalistic careers, Phuketwan’s launch in 2008 and their coverage of the Rohingya refugees and the Thai Navy. They pointed out that their coverage of the navy was far from negative and that Phuketwan has published many articles praising the humanitarian and environmental activities of the Royal Thai Navy in the south of the country. They also pointed that Phuketwan published the statement that the Royal Thai Navy issued after the article, in which it denied any involvement in human trafficking. “We had good relations with the navy before the case (...) and we still maintain a good relationship,” Morison told the court.