Court acquits northerner arrested over anti-junta campaign

A provincial court in northern Thailand has dismissed charges against a local anti-junta activist accused of violating the controversial Referendum Act.

The Provincial Court of Chiang Mai on 24 April 2017 acquitted Samat Khwanchai, a 63-year-old anti-establishment red shirt, indicted for alleged violation of the Referendum Act for distributing leaflets at a parking lot of Panthip Plaza Shopping Mall in Chiang Mai on 21 July 2016.

He attached the leaflets to the windshield wipers of about 10 cars parked at the Mall parking lot before the public referendum for the junta-sponsored draft constitution. The message of the leaflets read ‘Dictatorship shall be ruined, Democracy shall triumph: 7 August “Vote No”’.

The court reasoned that the message in the leaflet does not violate the Referendum Act because it is a general message that has been used among democracy lovers, adding that Article 7 of the Referendum Act allows people to express their opinions about the constitutional draft in an honest manner.

Samat was arrested on 23 July 2016 after about 60 police, soldiers and public officials raided his house and confiscated the leaflets. He was detained for nine days before the court released him on 100,000 baht bail.    

Under the controversial Article 61 of the Referendum Act, anyone who publishes or distributes content about the draft constitution which deviates from the facts, contains rude and violent language, or threateningly discourages voters from participating in the referendum, could face up to 10 years imprisonment, a fine of up to 200,000 baht and loss of electoral rights for five years.  

According to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR), at least 212 people were accused of violating the junta’s ban on political gatherings or the controversial Referendum Act, both of which were used to prevent critical discussion of the junta-sponsored constitution before it was approved in a public referendum on 7 August 2016.

Samat Khwanchai (Photo from TLHR)