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In 2019, Samak Donnapee, a retired forestry officer, and Wuth Boonlert, an indigenous human rights advocate, were prosecuted and tried for criminal defamation. The charges, brought by a government officer, Chaiwat Limlikhit-aksorn, (in his private capacity) and the Public Prosecutor, relate to Facebook posts by Samak Donnapee. The Prosecution alleged that the Facebook posts suggested that government employee Chaiwat Limlikhit-aksorn owned land that unlawfully encroached onto a national park that is also traditionally indigenous land. Wuth Boonlert was accused of sharing one of these posts with no further commentary. None of the posts named Chaiwat Limlikhit-aksorn.

Chaiwat Limlikhit-aksorn, a senior forestry officer, is known in Thailand for his 2011 role in forcibly removing the indigenous Karen community from land designated as national park land and burning down their homes and other property. As testified to in this court action, Wuth Boonlert had previously testified to the National Human Rights Commission about the forced removal and the destruction of Karen homes at Chaiwat Limlikhit-aksorn’s direction. Samak Donnapee testified in this action that he and Chaiwat Limlikhit-aksorn had also known each other professionally over the years and that, in 2014, Samak Donnapee (then a more senior forestry officer) had recommended that Chaiwat Limlikhit-aksorn be transferred to another district due to allegations he was involved in the disappearance of a Karen community activist. The criminal defamation charges in this case, particularly against Wuth Boonlert (who was only accused of sharing a Facebook post), appear to stem from this history. In accepting criminal charges from Chaiwat Limlikhit-aksorn and bringing its own criminal defamation charges as well, it appears that the State supported a prosecution that was intended to deter and punish rights activists.

While the trial itself was generally well conducted, the decision to bring charges was fundamentally flawed and inconsistent with the clear human rights law limits on prosecutions for defamation. In particular, the UN Human Rights Committee has stated that states should consider “the decriminalization of defamation” and that “in circumstances of public debate concerning public figures in the political domain and public institutions, the value placed by the [ICCPR] upon uninhibited expression is particularly high” and that therefore “a public interest in the subject matter of the criticism should be recognized as a defence.” Here, the charges self-evidently had little basis — the Facebook posts never named Chaiwat Limlikhit-aksorn — and, importantly, constituted speech that was part of an important debate about government corruption and national land use, both matters of public interest. While the court’s decision to acquit both defendants is to be welcomed, this is a case that should never have gone to trial.