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Day Six: Free speech on trial in Thailand

Two police “IT experts” as Prachatai trial resumes

The lèse majesté trial of Chiranuch Premchaiporn, webmaster of Thailand’s independent online news portal Prachatai resumed at Bangkok’s Criminal Court this morning after a hiatus of nearly seven months. The first five days of trial were held February 7 to 11. However, Chiranuch’s case was postponed when it became obvious the trial would take longer than the two weeks scheduled to hear testimony from 14 witnesses each for both prosecution and defence.

The morning hearing was held in one of the smallest courtrooms with a standing-room capacity crowd of around 50 supporters from local and int’l NGOs, media and diplomats from several Western embassies.

The sixth day of Chiranuch’s trial was held before a completely new single judge, The Honourable Kampol Rungrat, and a new public prosecutor. Previous testimony had been heard by a panel of three judges. It is somewhat worrying, at least to the untrained observer, to have lack of continuity in such an important trial. Another lawyer, who defended the lèse majesté case of Tantawut Taweewarodomkul, joined Chiranuch’s defence team.

The judge started the proceedings by noting that Chiranuch herself did not post the ten allegedly illegal comments to Prachatai’s webboard but that this case was to determine whether or not her actions or inactions as webmaster violated articles 14 and 15 of Thailand’s Computer Crimes Act.

The plain-speaking judge’s first statement was that this case was really ‘no big deal’—“ คดีไม่ใช่เรื่องใหญ่โต”!

The first prosecution witness was specialist inspector of Internet crime Keereerak Marak of Khon Kaen regional police. He had been asked to examine Prachatai for ‘inappropriate’ comments on October, 25, 2008 and found such dating from October 15. The witness stated that each comment could be readily traced by IP address. The judge actually had far more questions for this witness than did the prosecutor.

In response to defence questions, the police witness stated this was the first time he had been directed to target a specific website for lèse majesté content. Keereerak identified one pseudonymous poster by name; “Bento” was, in fact, Noppawan. However, police superiors directed that the poster’s name be replaced by Chiranuch’s.

FACT and Prachatai readers may recall that “Bento” was charged with lèse majesté in January 2009 under Article 112 of the Criminal Code and Article 14 of the Computer Crimes Act for just these comments alleged to be ‘offensive’ (note, not “insulting” or “threatening” as specified in Thai law) to the Queen and Crown Prince. Although her IP address and family telephone number led to her compulsory Thai identification card number and identified “Bento”, she was acquitted when police forensic examination failed to prove that the comment was sent from her computer. “Bento”’s webboard comment became Chiranuch’s tenth computer charge in the present case.

The second prosecution witness against Chiranuch was IT inspector Surapong Thammaphitak of the Royal Thai Police working group on lèse majesté. The witness stated he determined the comments to Prachatai were insulting to the monarchy and were readily identifiable by IP address.

Chiranuch cooperated with a police request to provide IP addresses which enabled police to identify the Prachatai posters which led to their positive identification from ISPs. ISPs then provided police with posters’ account usernames and passwords.

Defence questions of this witness determined that the police have no clear guidelines on lèse majesté. The judge then stated that the Prachatai ‘webboard is not the responsibility of its webmaster’ as no warning letter was sent to Prachatai by police before Chiranuch was arrested even though police were receiving her full cooperation.

The judge questioned again if Noppawan posted lèse majesté, it must be determined how Chiranuch can also be guilty.

The Hon. Kampol stated ‘the judge alone must determine if the comments are lèse majesté and that discussion on this matter in previous hearings had no meaning’ to this judge.

The judge’s final comment to the day’s testimony was, again, in his opinion, ‘this case is nothing’ and ‘the defendant was not at fault’.

It is far too early to divine whether the tide has turned in favour of one brave journalist due to a new govt or unprecedented public support but this judge gave some new hope, at least, that genuine justice will prevail for Chiranuch Premchaiporn.

Chiranuch’s resumes tomorrow, Friday, September 2 at Bangkok’s Criminal Court (San Aya) on Ratchadapisek road near Lat Phrao MTR station, Exit 4. The trial is being heard in courtroom 910 but the case docket number is 1167/2553 in case the courtroom venue changes.

Prosecution witnesses will be heard September 6, 7, 8, 9, 20, 21 and defence witnesses October 11, 12, 13, 14.