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The Criminal Court has postponed the witness examination hearings in the royal defamation trial of activist and MP designate Chonticha Jangrew, claiming that it has just discovered her lawyer’s schedule in its own case information system.

Chonticha Jangrew at a protest at Thammasat University in August 2022.

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.

The witness examination hearings in the trial against Chonticha were previously scheduled for March 2024, but were moved up to 1 – 11 June 2023 despite her lawyer informing the court several times that he is not available on these dates since he has to attend other hearings at the South Bangkok Criminal Court.

Last week, Chonticha filed a request with the court to postpone the hearings, but was rejected. She rejected the situation and refused to sign any document from the 1 – 2 June hearings, saying that the court’s insistance on continuing the hearings without her lawyer present to cross-examine prosecution witnesses undermines her right to a fair trial.

Chonticha also filed a complaint with the Judicial Commission requesting disciplinary actions be taken against the judges responsible for her trial for insisting on examining witnesses without the defendant lawyers.

Court spokesperson Sorawit Limparangsri later said that the court did not let Chonticha postpone the hearings because she had appointed two lawyers, Norasate Nanongtoom and Krisadang Nutcharus, and that although Norasate was not available, it did not appear that Krisadang was also not available. He also said that, although the law said witness examination must be done before the defendant, it did not say that the defendant’s lawyer must also be present. He noted that the court had allowed Chonticha to cross examine witnesses herself but she refused to do so.

On Sunday (4 June), Norasate posted on his Facebook profile page the explanation that he had already informed the court in writing that he has to attend another hearing on 1 -2 June and 6 June at the South Bangkok Criminal Court. However, Attakarn Foocharoen, Deputy Chief Justice of the Criminal Court, ordered the hearings to be moved up to those dates.

He noted that, although the court claimed that Krisadang could represent Chonticha when he is not available, Krisadang is also representing the defendants in another royal defamation trial at the South Bangkok Criminal Court – the same hearings Norasate has to attend – and so is not available to attend Chonticha’s hearings. Norasate had also submitted the hearing schedule at the South Bangkok Criminal Court on 1 – 2 June and 6 June to confirm his unavailability.

Norasate also wrote that, in a royal defamation trial against human rights lawyer and activist Anon Nampa, the court had also moved the witness examination hearings up. Norasate and Krisadang are also representing Anon, and are also not available because they have to attend other hearings. However, the court allowed Anon to postpone his hearings.

Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) said on Tuesday (6 June) that the Court has now postponed Chonticha’s hearings, saying that it has found on its online case information system that her two lawyers have to attend hearings in a royal defamation trial against activists charged for wearing crop tops in a protest at the Siam Paragon shopping mall.

While the court did not grant the request for the prosecution witnesses to testify again, it agreed to summon them to court for cross examination by the defendant’s lawyers on 11 August, noting that the previous hearings we recorded on video and the defendant may request to see this before the cross examination.

The court’s attempt to expedite Chonticha’s trial sparked criticism from politicians and lawyer groups, including Move Forward party MP designate and spokesperson Rangsiman Rome and the Human Rights Lawyers Association (HRLA), who said that doing so undermine Chonticha’s right to a fair trial and damages the judicial process.

iLaw manager Yingcheep Atchanont noted that it was not normal for a court to order hearings to be rescheduled when one party involved in the trial said they are not available at the rescheduled date. He wrote that he has never seen such practice and that it is not correct, noting that it would be easy to see the court’s decision in a bad light since Chonticha is an MP designate for the Move Forward party, and would lose her MP status if she is sentenced to prison and not immediately granted bail. Nevertheless, he noted that the court decided to postpone Chonticha’s hearings in July 2022, soon after she announced her intention to run as an MP candidate, when no one knew if she would win.

The Democracy Restoration Group (DRG), an activist group of which Chonticha was previously a member, said that the court’s ruling that the witness examination conducted without the defendant’s lawyer is already lawful and so the witnesses do not need to testify again damages the judicial process. Although the defendant’s lawyer now has the opportunity to cross examine the witnesses in another hearing, the court is setting a precedent that holding a trial without legal representation is appropriate, and this may lead to harassment if the court decides to schedule hearings in political cases on dates when a defendant’s lawyer is not available.

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