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Three women human rights defenders acquitted of libel in Thailand

Behind the recent acquittal of three Thai human rights defenders lies a contentious issue: SLAPP lawsuits.

Photo: Fortify Rights
Photo: Fortify Rights

BANGKOK – Three prominent Thai women human rights defenders were acquitted of criminal defamation charges by the Bangkok South Criminal Court today, after facing legal action from a Thai poultry company.

After four years of proceedings Angkhana Neelapaijit, a member of the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance and a former National Human Rights Commissioner of Thailand; Puttanee Kangkun, former Senior Human Rights Specialist at Fortify Rights, an NGO; and Thanaporn Saleephol, formerly with Fortify Rights as a Communications Associate, were found not guilty by the court.

The poultry company now has 30 days to appeal the decision.

The lawsuits were initiated in reaction to online posts about the working conditions at a chicken farm owned by the company and shared by the three women. These lawsuits, known as SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation), aim to silence and intimidate critics through the threat of legal action and financial burdens.

Call for better protection from SLAPP

In an op-ed in Nikkei Asia on 25 August, Puttanee noted the damaging effects of SLAPP actions, arguing that they not only harm individuals economically and psychologically but also stifle civil society and democracy in Thailand. She urged the impending Thai government to prioritise ending such lawsuits to safeguard human rights defenders.

Had they been convicted, the three women faced potential imprisonment of up to two years and/or a fine up to 200,000 baht (approximately US$5,700). Such penalties are viewed as severely excessive for defamation charges under international standards.

Earlier this year, the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand published its 2022 report on human rights. The report recognised the inhibitive nature of SLAPPs on human rights advocacy and urged the Thai government to legislate against such suits, advocating for better protection of human rights defenders from SLAPP actions.

However, the prevalence of SLAPP lawsuits targeting human rights activists remains alarmingly high in Thailand, drawing widespread criticism for suppressing dissent and free expression.