Defamation case against Ngamsuk Ruttanasatian, Mahidol lecturer and human rights defender

Translated from Thai by Tyrell Haberkorn

On 5 August, a second hearing was held at the Criminal Court in Bangkok to examine the grounds in the defamation case brought by Thammakaset Company against Ngamsuk Ruttanasatian, a lecturer in the Institute for Human Rights and Peace (IHRP) at Mahidol University. The case arose after Ngamsuk, who manages the Facebook page for IHRP, posted an English-language article, “#Thailand: End Judicial Harassment of Human Rights Defenders Nan Win and Sutharee Wannasiri” to the page. The article contained a link to a YouTube clip of an English-language interview with a Thammakaset worker by Fortify Rights, a regional human rights organization. The interview described the violation of rights of Thammakaset workers, which included harsh work, no breaks for rest, and the seizure of passports by the company.

Ngamsuk Ruttanasatian

In the second hearing to examine the grounds, the plaintiff was represented by Chanchai Permphol, who was accompanied by a lawyer. Ngamsuk was accompanied by her legal team and academic colleagues, including Gotham Arya. Representatives from the United Nations came to observe the proceedings. 

Following the first hearing to examine the grounds of the case, the court accepted a petition from the defendant’s lawyer that cited Article 161/1 of the Criminal Procedure Code and argued that the case was dishonestly brought by the plaintiff. They further noted that it should be dismissed in order to prevent additional Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation (SLAPP) cases, designed to silence critics, from being brought. The petition argued that the case should not be brought in the criminal court and its dismissal would be in the public good. The court examined the petition and found that the facts in the case were not yet complete and both parties must present evidence of the facts. The court wished to hear the evidence of the plaintiff and therefore decided to delay issuing an order in response to the petition and allowed the plaintiff to present evidence.

Chanchai testified that the reason for the dispute was that a group of workers complained to labor inspection officials, who then came to negotiate between the workers and the company. The labor inspection officials ordered the company to pay 1.7 million baht to the workers in compensation. But, a group of workers led by a set of individuals still submitted a petition to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and made additional accusations. These accusations included, for example, that the plaintiff forced them to work without breaks, detained the workers and did not allow them to leave the farm for more than 2 hours per week, and seized their passports. They brought a case in the Labor Court requesting that the plaintiff pay 44 million baht in damages. The NHRC found that there was no violation of rights as alleged and only had the plaintiff pay the compensation according to the order of the labor inspection officials.

The Thammakaset Company then brought a defamation case against 14 former workers in July 2018, but the Don Muang district court dismissed the case.

Chanchai maintains that no employees worked at night as the lights had to be turned off once it was dark outside so that the chickens could rest. But there were records of workers punching their time cards to enter the employee canteen, which was adjacent to the chicken coops. Typically, workers punched their time cards to work from 8 am-noon, took a break from noon-1 pm, and then worked further from 1-5 pm.

After the court examined the grounds of the case, they issued an order for the lawyers for both parties to submit a closing declaration by 5 September 2019. The court will meet to rule on whether or not the case will continue on 18 September 2019.

The defendant and the defendant’s legal team declined to make any additional comments on the case.

Statement from Fortify Rights:

Thailand: Drop Criminal Complaint Against Mahidol University Lecturer Ngamsuk Ruttanasatian

Poultry company continues assault on free expression in Thailand

(Bangkok, August 5, 2019) – Thai authorities should immediately drop defamation complaints brought by poultry company Thammakaset Company Limited against Ngamsuk Ruttanasatian, a woman human rights defender and lecturer at Mahidol University’s Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies (IHRP), Fortify Rights said today.

Today, Bangkok Criminal Court is scheduled to hold a second preliminary hearing to consider whether there is merit to pursue a criminal case against Ngamsuk in relation to a Facebook post about Thammakaset’s criminal defamation charges against other human rights defenders in Thailand.

“These cases are an assault on freedom of expression in Thailand. It’s regrettable that Thai authorities continue to allow a business to use the courts to target human rights defenders with spurious lawsuits,” said Amy Smith, Executive Director of Fortify Rights. “These cases are intended to instill fear, drain money and time, and cause unnecessary emotional harm.”

Ngamsuk is accused of defaming Thammakaset by sharing a Fortify Rights news release on IHRP’s Facebook page on March 12, 2019. The news release relates to another criminal defamation lawsuit filed by Thammakaset against human rights defenders Nan Win and Sutharee Wannasiri, who continue to face similar charges for promoting labor rights and free speech in Thailand. The news release includes a link to a video published by Fortify Rights about earlier criminal defamation charges brought by Thammakaset against 14 migrant workers. Thammakaset claims the video includes defamatory information.

In 2016, 14 former Thammakaset employees reported allegations of labor rights abuses by the company to the Thai labor department and the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand (NHRC-T). In response to the complaint to the the NHRC-T, Thammakaset filed criminal defamation charges against the 14 former employees. In July 2018, the Don Mueang Sub-District Court dismissed the criminal defamation complaint, and in January 2019, the Supreme Court of Thailand ordered Thammakaset to pay 1.7 million Thai Baht (US$52,925) in compensation to the 14 former employees for violations of Thailand’s Labor Protection Act.

Thammakaset filed a complaint against Ngamsuk under Article 326 and 328 of the Thailand Criminal Code, which carries a sentence of up to two years in prison and up to 200,000 Thai Baht (US$6,500) in fines.

According to the preliminary hearing procedure, the Thammakaset's legal team will present evidence and testify for the court to consider if there are reasonable grounds to pursue a criminal trial. On July 1, the Thammakaset's legal team and Ngamsuk's legal team examined and cross-examined Thammakaset representative Mr. Chanchai Permphol, respectively. Today, the cross-examination is scheduled to continue, followed by a re-examination before the court decides whether to pursue defamation charges.

At the beginning of the first preliminary hearing on July 1, the Community Resource Centre Foundation (CRC)—the legal team representing Ngamsuk—encouraged the court to consider Articles 161/1 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which were incorporated into Thai law in December 2018 in order to prevent such lawsuits, known as SLAPP suits or Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation. The court has not yet considered these articles in the current proceeding against Ngamsuk.

“Thai authorities are aware of SLAPP lawsuits and amended the law accordingly to prevent these very cases,” said Amy Smith. “We expect the court to observe the law and dismiss this case completely.”

Since 2016, Thammakaset has lodged at least 17 criminal and civil complaints against workers, activists, journalists, and academics. On July 18, the Lopburi Provincial Court decided to proceed with a similar case brought by Thammakaset against a TV reporter. On July 30, the Lopburi Provincial Court dismissed the appeal lodged by Thammakaset, which alleged the workers stole their time cards.

Thailand should act to ensure all persons can freely exercise their rights without fear of reprisals, including harassment through spurious legal complaints or SLAPP lawsuits. The complaints brought by Thammakaset appear to be designed to intimidate human rights defenders and constitute an unnecessary and disproportionate interference in the rights to freedom of expression and access to information. Thailand is a party of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, in which Article 19 protects the right to freedom of expression.

“Human rights defenders like Ngamsuk work to improve society and protect the basic rights of everyone, but now she's facing a violation of her own rights,” said Amy Smith. “Thai authorities should protect human rights defenders and end judicial harassment to strengthen Thai society.”