Thailand: Acquittal in SLAPP against whistleblower Chutima Sidasathian

Chutima Sidasathian (3rd from left) with supporters after 6 March 2024 acquittal

On 6 March 2024, a Thai court in Nakhon Ratchasima (Korat) province acquitted anti-corruption whistleblower Dr. Chutima Sidasathian on three charges of criminal defamation.

The three charges against Dr Chutima were brought by a local elected official, Mayor Thanonthorn Kaveekitrattana, in May 2022 as an apparent reprisal for Dr. Chutima’s exposure of the local official’s alleged involvement in misappropriation of microcredit monies loaned by Thailand’s National Village and Urban Community Fund through the State-owned Government Savings Bank.

LRWC advocacy on Thailand’s criminal defamation cases against human rights defenders

Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada (LRWC) issued a joint amicus brief with the International Commission of Jurists. LRWC also issued a report on the case on 25 January 2024, including recommendations that Thailand drop all criminal charges against Dr. Chutima Sidasathian and Ms. Phasini Khemmalang, and amend laws to decriminalize defamation and “create dedicated whistleblower legislation that facilitates reporting of alleged corruption, and effectively prevents retaliation against whistleblowers, ensuring sanctions against those who use Thailand’s legal system to engage in reprisals against those reporting allegations of corruption or other suspected integrity violations by officials.”

In her verdict, the judge ruled that Dr. Chutima was entitled to make genuine criticism of local administrators. The full text of the verdict is scheduled to be released later in March 2024. The mayor has 30 days to appeal the decision.

Criminal defamation charges carry penalties of heavy fines and prison sentences of up to two years on each count. The same local official has brought an additional six charges against Dr. Chutima, which are set to be sent to the provincial prosecutor’s office for a decision as to whether to proceed with the charges.

On 5 February 2024, the Korat prosecutor made a decision not to proceed with a criminal defamation complaint filed by the Mayor against another whistleblower, Ms. Phasini Khemmalang, also named in LRWC’s 25 January report. Ms. Phasini acted as a spokesperson for residents of one village who made a complaint to Thailand’s Department of Special Investigation (DSI) about misappropriation of loan funds made by Thailand’s microcredit lending agency. The alleged misappropriations have resulted in in financial ruin for a number of villagers forced to repay monies they never received.

”Advocates and journalists should be protected, not persecuted by the state,” Dr Chutima said after the 6 March acquittal. ”People who speak up on behalf of others deserve to be listened to, not to face false accusations and long jail terms.”

“Who will pay for my suffering, who will pay for my loss of income?” she asked, referring to her costs of defending herself at trial, regular police interviews, fingerprinting, and psychological trauma. “Criminal defamation punishes good people who are brave enough to speak up for others. I will only be able to celebrate when the day comes that the Thai government repeals these laws,” she said.

TrialWatch, an arm of the Clooney Foundation for Justice, monitored Dr Chutima’s two-day trial in February 2024. The 6 March 2024 verdict was attended by observers from the International Commission of Jurists, the Human Rights Lawyers’ Association (Thailand), TrialWatch, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and the political opposition Move Forward Party. Besides LRWC’s initiatives, other advocacy included statements from Media Defence, Article 19 and the Coalition for Women in Journalism.

For close to a decade, LRWC has advocated for a number of other human rights defenders in subjected to SLAPP cases in Thailand, including lawyers, labour rights defenders, and women human rights defenders and journalists. This is not the first time LRWC has advocated for Chutima Sidasathian. In September 2015 she was found not guilty criminal defamation and computer crimes charges brought by the Royal Thai Navy after the Phuketwan news outlet published a report that included a paragraph quoted from a Reuters feature series that won a Pulitzer prize. She worked as a ”fixer” for Reuters on their Pulitzer-winning feature on human trafficking of Rohingya people through Thailand.

Thailand’s criminal defamation laws regularly misused to silence dissent

Thailand’s criminal defamation laws are regularly misused to silence and criminalize human rights defenders, journalists, and whistleblowers through illegitimate and protracted strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs). Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission in 2023 acknowledged the cases against Dr. Chutima as SLAPPs.

United Nations (UN) human rights bodies, other countries, anti-corruption bodies, and numerous human rights organizations have urged Thailand to decriminalize defamation ensure anti-SLAPP protection. A July 2023 report by the UN Development Program (UNDP) recommended to Thailand that it take a number of measures to prevent and halt SLAPPs, including decriminalizing defamation and measures to compensate those subjected to SLAPPs.