"We used the Computer Crime Act, because we didn't want to use a more serious law," said Pol Col Yanapol Yangyeun, Commander of the IT Crime Office of the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) under the Ministry of Justice, during a seminar on Thailand's relatively new computer crime law on Nov 8, 2007.
He was referring to the quiet arrests of two web-board users in late August this year. Both were active members in several political internet discussion forums including Prachatai, and were arrested because of their straightforward criticisms of the monarchy. Their arrests were neither confirmed nor denied by the authorities at the time. However, they were finally set free, as the authorities decided not to pursue the case in court for undeclared reasons.
The Computer Crime Act was the first law passed by the National Legislative Assembly set up after the Sept 19 coup last year by the junta, and took effect on July 18, 2007. The two arrests were the first ‘crimes' busted by the law.
"It was reported that there were over 20,000 websites being blocked. That may be correct. And I was among the first of the authorities to block them," Pol Col Yanapol said.
He said that many people who helped draft the law in a process which began 9 years ago said that the law was considerably changed for fear of giving the authorities too much power, and ended up giving them virtually no power because several procedures were added which must be approved by the minister or the courts.
"If we want to block [websites], we must ask for approval from the Information and Communications Technology minister, and then the courts," he said, adding that for general web surfers this law gives infinite freedom.
Chiranuch Premchaiporn, director of Prachatai online newspaper, told the seminar that the quiet arrests of the two persons believed to have used the aliases ‘Phraya Pichai' and ‘Ton Chan' were at first rumoured through personal messages circulating among Prachatai web-board members.
When the Financial Times newspaper reported the arrests days later, the ICT minister responded to reporters' inquiries that he was not aware of the arrests, and if there were any, he would not have been informed. Chiranuch wondered how that could happen, when the ICT minister is the authority designated by this law.
Only when an anti-coup activist, Sombat Bun-ngamanong, was charged with defamation of the coup leaders and detained in Bangkok Remand Prison did he by chance meet one of the arrested persons, and was able to tell reporters to contact his family members.
The other arrest was confirmed only when Prachatai founder Jon Ungphakorn was contacted by telephone by the detainee's father. Due to the family's financial situation, Prachatai and other human rights and press freedom advocates managed to raise money to bail the detainee, but it turned out that the authorities themselves rushed to bail her out instead.
However, during his two weeks' detention, the cyber alias Praya Pichai was still found by some members to be online using a chat application MSN, and whoiever was using that alias kept denying the news of his arrest.
"Now it's finally established that the arrests did take place. But the person using Praya Pichai's MSN account....no answer," Chiranuch said.
In this regard, a question was raised in the seminar as to whether the authorities can use others' internet identities to collect information and can then use the information in court. A law expert and a drafter of the Computer Crime Act Paiboon Amornpinyokiart said that Article 25 of the law requires lawful acquisition of evidence.
"But the court usually takes a special interest in lèse majesté cases. In my experience, the court accepts all kinds of evidence regarding these cases. In normal cases, no," Paiboon said.
Chiranuch said that the two detainees were reluctant or did not want to talk with reporters because they were warned off by the authorities.
"Why was the law enforced in such a surreptitious manner? Why not transparent? Dozens of police were involved in the raid to make the arrest, and family members were not informed. The other one was also captured when her room was raided. Computers were seized. And they were detained at the Crime Suppression Department for 7 days before being transferred to prison," Chiranuch said.
The Prachatai Director said that it was unreasonable for the authorities to try to prevent this case from being publicized. So it was questionable if the arrests and detention were made following proper procedure. Suspicion and fear have gripped internet community members, who feel threatened by the dark power under the law.
However, Pol Col Yanapol insisted that the authorities followed the proper procedure. He said that the law does not allow arbitrary arrests, and requires a proper process. It is not a question of being publicized or not. According to the law, an arrest can be made only when the offence is being committed. In the case of Praya Pichai, approval must have been sought from the court before the arrest was made.
"We checked his records and found that he was not really in his right mind. So his mother, sister and relatives took him. You can contact his sister. Now his sister is taking care of him," Yanapol said, adding "We used the Computer Crime Act, because we didn't want to use a more serious law,"