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The South Bangkok Criminal Court has dismissed the criminal defamation lawsuit filed by the Lopburi-based chicken farm company Thammakaset against three human rights defenders for their postings on social media about alleged abuse of migrant workers at its farm.

From left: Thanaporn Saleephol, Puttanee Kangkun, and Angkhana Neelapaijit. (Photo from the Community Resource Centre Foundation)

The company filed criminal defamation complaints in 2019 against former National Human Rights Commissioner Angkhana Neelapaijit, former Fortify Rights Senior Human Rights Specialist Puttanee Kangkun, and former Fortify Rights Communications Associate Thanaporn Saleephol. The complaint resulted from tweets and retweets in support of other defendants being sued by the company. The tweets also contained a link to an open letter related to defamation cases filed by Thammakaset and a link to a video on labour rights by the human rights organisation Fortify Rights, a group which was also hit with a defamation lawsuit.

The Community Resource Centre Foundation, which is providing legal representation for the three human rights defenders, said on Tuesday (29 August) that the South Bangkok Criminal Court ruled to dismiss the lawsuit on the grounds that the tweets and retweets were not about the company but contained messages expressing support for other rights advocates being sued by the company.

Tittasat Soodsan, a defence lawyer from the Community Resource Centre Foundation, said the Court ruled that the defendants had no way to know that people who read their posts would follow links to the video. As for the video itself, the court noted that a verdict was previously reached that it does not contain anything defamatory.

Tittasat said the defendants and their lawyers are happy with the ruling which protects freedom of expression. Noting that the proceeding has taken 4 years and has been a burden on the defendants, financially and emotionally, Tittasat thanked them for not backing down and fighting for their rights and freedom.

The lawsuits against Angkhana, Puttanee, and Thanaporn are among the over 30 civil and criminal cases the company filed against human rights defenders, journalists, and workers since 2016 after 14 migrant workers from Myanmar submitted a petition to the National Human Rights Commission claiming that they were made to work for below-minimum wages without overtime pay and that their documents had been seized by their employer.

The workers were sued by the company in October 2019 for defamation, but later acquitted.

Fortify Rights, where Puttanee and Thanaporn previously worked, issued a statement welcoming the acquittal. Amy Smith, Fortify Rights Executive Director, called on Thai authorities to ensure that cases of judicial harassment are not allowed to proceed. She also asked for the decriminalisation of defamation to show that Thailand is committed to preventing judicial harassment.

The UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR) for Southeast Asia also issued a statement welcoming the acquittal. Katia Chirizzi, Deputy South-East Asia Representative of the UN Human Rights Office in Bangkok, said that, while charges against human rights defenders continue to be dropped, Thailand’s private sector continues to use strategic lawsuits to harass and silence human rights defenders by putting them through lengthy and costly litigation which, she said, perpetuate “an atmosphere of fear and intimidation.” She added that such lawsuits “have a disproportionately detrimental impact on women human rights defenders who face specific vulnerabilities because of their gender.”

In her statement, she also noted a “troubling pattern” of companies suing members of parliament, politicians, and journalists in recent years in a way which undermines freedom of opinion and expression.  The continued existence of strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) in Thailand’s judicial system, she stressed, runs contrary to commitments it made during its last cycle of Universal Periodic Review.

“SLAPP cases lead to self-censorship, significant stress and financial burden through protracted litigation and also can jeopardise the safety and security of those speaking out," Chirizzi said.

“Increased awareness and consistent compliance by both the State and private sector to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights is essential to strengthen protections for human rights defenders, discourage companies from filing such lawsuits, and to ensure prompt dismissal by courts.”

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