Witness testimony has ended in the defamation case brought by the Royal Thai Navy against two fruit vendors in Phuket, with the verdict set to be delivered at the end of the next month.
The case rests on a misspelled English sign, written in marker pen on a scrap of cardboard, which the defendants displayed on their fruit stall last year. The sign read ‘Naval oranges cheep’.
The sign was spotted by a tourist who thought it amusing enough to be posted on the internet, where it was repeatedly re-posted on those websites that make fun of foreigners’ mistakes in English. So in addition to criminal defamation charges, the two vendors have also been prosecuted under the Computer Crime Act for importing false information into a computer system.
Testifying for the prosecution on the first day of the trial, a Navy captain admitted that he had not seen the sign himself but had been ordered by his superiors to bring the prosecution. He supposed that someone somewhere in the Navy had seen something on the internet. Under cross-examination, however, he could not identify who had seen what or where.
Since he did not speak English well enough to understand the 3 words on the sign, he had asked an expert translator in the RTN to tell him what it said. The expert had translated it to mean that the Royal Thai Navy had acquired in a corrupt manner substandard life-jackets that made funny noises. When asked how the translator arrived at this interpretation, the captain was able only to state that most life jackets, whether those used by the Navy or other organizations, were orange in colour.
He said that claiming without proof that the Royal Thai Navy was engaged in corrupt practices was very defamatory and caused senior naval officers to go to bed crying every night, though he personally couldn’t quite see the point.
In response to a question from the judge, the public prosecutor said that he had no plans to call the translator as a witness since he was currently in China helping national security officials investigate the fate of repatriated Uighurs. He was expected to be away for a long time, since at the moment he could speak neither Chinese nor Uighur and was undergoing a crash course.
The investigating police officer testified that having been alerted by the plaintiff, he visited the fruit stall in question but could see no sign. When he questioned the defendants, they admitted that they once did display a sign, but had chucked it out months ago because farangs kept pointing at it and giggling. And not buying any oranges.
The officer then asked the defendants to write another sign like the first one, which they did. Under the strict new rules on evidence custody chains after the Ko Tao murder case fiasco, the officer carefully bagged this evidence, signed and sealed the package and submitted it to his superior officer, who did the same.
The evidence was then passed up the chain of command and was submitted in court where the prosecution challenged it on the grounds that nothing could be seen through 13 plastic bags. The judge concurred, castigated the investigating team for overuse of plastic and ruled that the case would proceed on the basis of the computer evidence.
A police computer expert then testified that the offensive sign had appeared on the internet on multiple sites. When questioned as to whether the sign constituted ‘false information’ as defined under the Computer Crime Act, he said he supposed so, since it was spelled wrong.
When asked for a correct spelling, he said he wasn’t sure, but his mate thought it ought to be ‘Navel oranges cheap’. The defence asked the judge to delete this testimony from the record as constituting hearsay. This was overruled. The defence then argued that if this was the correct reading of the sign, there was no case to answer and asked the judge to dismiss the charges. The judge instructed himself to disregard the hearsay evidence and continued with the trial.
Under cross-examination, the computer expert said that he could produce no evidence that the defendants had themselves posted the offending image on a computer system. He said that questioning the defendants was complicated by the fact that neither had ever used a computer in their lives and both claimed they had never heard of anyone called ‘Tu Yub’.
When asked why charges had been brought against two indigent defendants but not against any of the much better resourced websites that posted the image, the witness said that was nothing to do with him and you had to ask someone in Bangkok.
In the remaining 2 days of the trial, when the prosecutor didn’t even bother to turn up, precluding any cross-examination, defence witnesses testified that the law was being misused, and that some naval bigwig had initially misunderstood the evidence, was making a case out of nothing, and was too thin-skinned to admit it.
The defendants said that they had been approached by men in naval uniforms to make an apology, in which case the defamation charge would be dropped. But their own lawyers had pointed out that an apology would constitute a confession in the CCA case and earn them years in jail.
They had also been contacted by someone called Somyos who said that he could have a word with someone and clear up their legal difficulties. This would cost them and they had been trying to raise the cash, but Somyos had suddenly stopped taking their calls.
The defence team was confident of a favourable verdict, but more seasoned observers noted that while the prosecution evidence was almost non-existent, it would be premature to expect that this would determine the case. ‘Lots of other trial verdicts ignore the evidence; why should this one be different?’ asked one.
About author: Bangkokians with long memories may remember his irreverent column in The Nation in the 1980's. During his period of enforced silence since then, he was variously reported as participating in a 999-day meditation retreat in a hill-top monastery in Mae Hong Son (he gave up after 998 days), as the Special Rapporteur for Satire of the UN High Commission for Human Rights, and as understudy for the male lead in the long-running ‘Pussies -not the Musical' at the Neasden International Palladium (formerly Park Lane Empire).