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The Criminal Court has insisted on continuing witness examination in the royal defamation trial of activist Chonticha Jangrew, now MP designate for the Move Forward Party, despite her lawyer being unavailable to attend the hearing.

Chonthicha Jangrew (left) arriving at the Criminal Court on Friday morning (2 June).

Chonticha was charged with royal defamation for posting a message to King Vajiralongkorn during a November 2020 protest, in which protesters marched to the Grand Palace to send letters calling for monarchy reform.

The complaint against her was filed by Nopadol Prompasit, a member of the Thailand Help Centre for Cyberbullying Victims, a royalist group whose members have filed numerous royal defamation complaints against activists, protesters, and netizens discussing the monarchy online. Nopadol himself has filed complaints against several other activists, including Parit Chiwarak, Anon Nampa, and Piyarat Chongthep.

Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) said that witness examination hearings in the trial against Chonticha were scheduled for March 2024, but the Criminal Court decided to move it up to 1 – 11 June 2023, even though Chonticha’s lawyer informed them that he is not available on these dates as he has to attend another hearing at the South Bangkok Criminal Court.

On Thursday (1 June), Chonticha filed a request with the court to postpone the witness examination hearings on the grounds that her lawyer has already informed the court that he is not available and because she did not sign the court order rescheduling the hearings. However, the court rejected her request, claiming that she did not oppose it when the hearings were rescheduled and because the prosecution witnesses had already come to court, and ruled that the hearings should continue without her lawyer.

Chonticha told the court that doing so would undermine her right to a fair trial, and insisted that her lawyer filed a request to the court which included a list of cases he is responsible for and hearing schedule. She asked to discuss the issue directly with the Criminal Court Chief Justice or Deputy Chief Justice, who she said decided to reschedule her hearings, but she was refused.

Chonticha requested to change the judges responsible for the trial on the grounds that their ruling to continue witness examination without her lawyer is unlawful and undermines her ability to fully fight her charges. Her request was later rejected by the Chief Justice because there is no ground to change the judges.

She declared to the court that she rejects the process, and will not sign any document resulting from the hearing.

“I am very disappointed. I expect that the court would stand with dignity and give the people justice. You can examine the witness if you want, but I will not accept the process because there is no justice,” she said.

“It’s not just the court that will fail, but the entire system will fail. I hope you have some conscience about this.”

The court insisted on continuing the witness examination after her declaration and summoned 4 prosecution witnesses to the stand without Chonticha’s lawyer to cross examine them. Although the court told her that she may cross examine them herself, she refused to do so in her rejection of the process.

Chonticha filed a complaint with the Judicial Commission on Friday morning (2 June), requesting disciplinary action to be taken against the judges for expediting her trial to the point of examining witnesses without the defendant’s lawyer. She said that the court did not tell her why her hearings were rescheduled, only saying that it was up to the judges’ discretion. She noted that her lawyer told a court official that he is representing Parit Chiwarak and other activists and would not be available. Despite this, the court rescheduled the hearings without asking her lawyer to confirm them.

Chonticha said in a March 2023 press conference that she was indicted only days after she announce her intention to run an an MP candidate for the Move Forward party in February 2023.

She said that there are 4 – 5 other cases in which the hearings have been moved, but after the defendants in those cases requested to have them postponed, the court granted the request. She also said that judge Attakarn Foocharoen, Deputy Chief Justice of the Criminal Court, ordered the rescheduling.

A leaked testimony from a police officer showed that Attakarn was the judge who revoked an arrest warrant on drug and money laundering charges issued against Thai senator Upakit Pachariyangkun.

TLHR said that the court still insisted on continuing today’s hearing and said that Chonthicha may cross examine the witness herself. She insisted on rejecting the proceeding, and said that “if the court insists on examining witnesses knowing that there won’t be a lawyer present then go for it. Section 112 is a criminal charge. According to the principles, there should be a lawyer present. If you want to examine the witnesses, go for it. Let the judicial process fail.”

During the hearings, the court said that it did not grant her request to postpone the hearing and to have Thursday’s hearing declared invalid because she has two lawyers and is allowed to cross-examine the witnesses herself. Chonticha then told the court that rescheduling the hearings was unlawful because the court contacted her lawyer, Norasate Nanongtoom, and has been informed that he is not available.

She explained that her other lawyer is only representing her for the request she filed about her hearing, and that the lawyer is also representing the defendants in the same trial as Norasate at the South Bangkok Criminal Court and so would also not be available to represent her, and noted that, for a charge that carry such a high penalty, witness examination should not be conducted without a lawyer who is a legal expert.

Despite this, the court continue the hearings and was able to examine all 7 prosecution witnesses in the two days. The next hearing has been scheduled for 6 June. TLHR said that Chonticha refused to sign any document resulting from the hearings and insisted on rejecting the proceeding.

Move Forward party’s MP designate Rangsiman Rome posted on his Facebook page last night that by allowing the hearings to proceed without Chonticha’s lawyer, the judges are destroying the judicial process. He asked whether it would still consider a fair trial if it was any other charges but royal defamation and if the defendant was an ordinary member of the public and the court allows them to fight the charges without legal representation. He wrote that once parliament opens, the Move Forward Party will push for judicial reform so that no such thing will happen to anyone again. 

The Human Rights Lawyers Association (HRLA) meanwhile issued a statement raising concerns about the proceedings in Chonticha’s trial. It noted that in the trial against activist Parit Chiwarak and 22 other people, the Deputy Chief Justice of the Criminal Court also rescheduled the hearings despite both the defendants and the prosecution confirming their unavailability.

The HRLA said that rescheduling hearings without confirming whether the defence lawyer is available and not allowing the hearings to be postponed is unlawful and damages the fundamental principles of the judicial process. The court should therefore be aware that such a proceeding is unfair to the defendant and damages the public’s trust in the justice system.

The HRLA called on the Chief Justice of the Criminal Court to investigate these actions and prevent them from occurring again so as to stop any unfair and unlawful proceedings, noting that although trials can be expedited so that they do not take too long, doing so must also be fair to everyone involved.

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