Witness examination in a case of “Soldier slapped villagers” video clip at the Chiang Mai Court on 2-4 February
The hearings of witness examination in the pending case No. 1676/58 between Chiang Mai prosecuting attorney and Mr. Maitri Charoensuebsakul will take place on 2-4 February 2016 at the Chiang Mai Provincial Court. Maitri was charged with Section 14 of the Computer Crime Act 2007 as military officials accused him for importing false data to a computer system and causing damage to the military.
This case is related to an incident from 2015, when villagers reported that soldiers slapped many people and Maitri posted about the incident on social network. Apart from the origin, notable aspects of this case include the military’s use of Computer Crime Act against the individual who disseminated information that affect the army, and the defendant’s background; a hill-tribe villager with indigenous decent , social worker, and local reporter.
This article covers the cause of this case, the defendant’s background, and observable aspects about the use of Computer Crime Act and the offence of defamation.
Soldiers and Computer Crime Act
On 4 January 2015, Capt. Panomsak Kantaeng, a soldier from Baan Arunothai camp, reported an offence against Mr. Maitri Charoensuebsakul at Phunawai Police Station. He indicated that Maitri had shared a message on Facebook accusing soldiers from Baan Arunothai camp for attacking adults and children who were by a bonfire at Baan Kong Pak Ping village, Chiang Dao district in Chiang Mai, on 31 December 2014, and disseminated an edited video clip showing soldiers arguing with civilians. The soldier insisted that the accusations are not true.
The soldier also explained that what happened in fact was when military officials of Baan Arunothai camp helped stopping a brawl between Baan Mueang Na Klang and Baan Kong Pak Ping teenagers, which is their duty. Therefore Maitri’s post was an act of importing false data to a computer system and caused damage to the military officials.
Later on, Pol.Capt. Sa-nguan Meeklin, the inquiry officer of Nawai Police Station, Chiang Dao, summoned Maitri to hear the charges and give evidence on 11 February 2015. The inquiry officer read the offence to Section 14 of Computer Crime Act 2007 for importing to a computer system of forged computer data, in a manner that is likely to cause damage to the third party or the public, an offence that shall be subject to imprisonment for not more than five years or a fine of not more than one hundred thousand baht or both. Maitri however denied all the accusations.
Founder of ‘Lahu Youth Protecters group’ and the voice for the community
The incident took place in Baan Pak Kong Ping village, Mueang Na, Chiang Dao, Chiang Mai. The village belongs to Lahu ethnic group, and locates near Thai-Burma border about 50 km from Chiang Dao. Other ethnic groups’ villages also locate around the same area, as well as a scout scamp named Baan Arunothai.
Maitri Charoensuebsakul, 31, was born in Baan Kong Pak Ping village. He is a Lahu and a Christian, graduated an equivalent of Mathayom 6 from Non-formal Education, and also studied Theology. He is married and a father of 2 children. Maitri used to teach children at a church in Chiang Saen, Chiang Rai province, and had opened a mobile phone shop near his village but recently closed.
Maitri also contributes to social activities, especially with the youth. The ‘Glue sniffing’ is a serious problem among teenagers in the village. Maitri brought the kids who are prone to the drug abuse together and encouraged group activities such as playing music or stage performance.
Maitri later collaborated with the Dinsorsee creative group in a project for well-being of children in communities around the country. He also encouraged Lahu children to protect the ethnic identity and culture and established “Lahu Youth Protecters Group”. Over hundreds of Lahu youngsters have participated in the group’s activities.
Having been to a filmmaking workshop with Friends Without Borders Foundation, Maitri had made a few short films and experimented with an amateur feature film. He had also been trained in Thai PBS’s local reporters program. He actively reports local issues such as nationality or ethnic lives, thus he is the voice for the village and ethnic people.
A tale from Baan Kong Pak Ping
The voice of the community that he is, Maitri reported what happened to the Kong Pak Ping villagers which leads to him being charged in this case.
According to the villagers, on 31 December 2014 around 20.30, a black Chevrolet pick-up truck and a motorcycle arrived at a small yard where around 10 villagers gathered around a bonfire.
Five plainclothes men, some wore military pants and bulletproof vest, walked to the villagers. One man carried a rifle and others with a pistol. Some villagers were frightened and ran away while seven sat still, among them were three teenage boys and an elderly woman. The men commanded the people to keep their heads low at gunpoint. One man slapped each villager’s faces, making one boy cry. He then proceeded to walked out with no explanation to the action. The headlight from the pick-up truck dazzled the villagers’ eyes and they could not see the man clearly.
Afterward other villagers came to the scene, as well as other five soldiers. A soldier said that the Tai Yai (Shan ethnic) teenagers and the Lahu teenagers had a fight, so the soldiers came to check. Villagers, when they knew that an elder and children were slapped, got angry and demanded apologies from the officers. They began to argue with the officials, but later agreed to meet and reconcile on the next day.
The villagers were sure that the plainclothes men were military officials, because they carried guns and appeared to be familiar to the soldiers. Even though Maitri was not at the scene, he reported the incident on his Facebook account.
In the morning of 1 January 2015, villagers and the military officials met at the headman of the village’s residence, this time Maitri also came along. The villagers demanded apology from the man who slapped people, whom they were sure was a soldier and other military officials must know about the action. The military officials insisted that they had yet to find the wrongdoer. Both parties started arguing again and ended not reaching a satisfying mutual agreement.
Afterwards, Maitri and the villagers agreed to upload a video clip from the attempted negotiation to Maitri’s Facebook account. On the next day, the military officials asked the head of the village to ask him to delete the post. However, several other pages had copied the clip, added slanders and comments, and disseminated the clip, which was not Maitri’s and villager’s intention.
On 4 January, Maitri was informed that the military officers pressed charge against him for posting the message and video clip.
Defendant insists on fighting
After Maitri heard the charge, the inquiry officer sent the case file of the case to the provincial attorney. On 7 May 2015, Chiang Mai provincial attorney preferred the charge against the Chiang Mai Provincial Court. The defendant used a security and 50,000 Baht of bond to bail out, and the Court granted temporary release.
The defense hearing was held on 3 August 2015. Maitri denied all the charges and stated the defense that the incident truly happened, and his act was bona fide to the benefit of him and the villagers. The prosecutor called for conciliation, which the Court ordered accordingly.
In the conciliation on 10 September 2015, the litigant military officer and the legal military officer attended the talk. The military informed that their commander ordered to prosecute Maitri as the action defamed the army. The officers in the conciliation had no power to decide on the withdrawal of the charge. Meanwhile, the defendant insisted on fighting the case, as he believed in his innocence, and the matter also involved with the villagers. As the conciliation failed, three days of hearings of witness examination were appointed on 2-4 February 2016 at the Chiang Mai Provincial Court.
Computer Crime Act and Offence of Defamation
Maitri’s case can be compared to the Phuketwan case from 2015. Phuketwan journalists copied parts of Reuter’s report which stated that some Thai authorities benefit from the Rohingya people trafficking. Thai Navy saw this as defamation, and litigated the journalists with the offence to Section 14 of Computer Crime Act.
The Phuket Provincial Court later acquitted the case. One reason given was that the intendment of Computer Crime Act do not aim at the offence of defamation by publicizing, which is already enacted in Article 328 of the Criminal Code. (See more information on Phuketwan case here)
Phuketwan case is one of the first cases in which the court analyzed that the intendment of Section 14 (1) of Computer Crime Act is not for the offence of defamation. The lawmaker had already stated that this Section did not aim at any kind of expressions, but intends to prevent and suppress false computer data, to fix the loophole in the Criminal Code which the offence of false documents did not include electronic data.
However, since the law was enacted, Section 14 (1) has been used in many defamation cases. The punishment for this Section is heavier than the offence of defamation in the Criminal Code, but is non-compoundable. There is no clause of non-liability or impunity, such as bona fide comments or criticism for public benefit. Such use of the Computer Crime Act has been criticized for a long time.*
Maitri’s is another case that Section 14 (1) has been used to charge a citizen for his online expression, and the litigant is from the army itself. The case, therefore, is another important case to be observed for the court hearings and the delivery of judgment.
*See more information in “Section 14(1) of Compurt-related Crime Act: A controversial enforcement of online defamation law” by ilaw, or “’Progress’ of the interpretation of Computer Crime Act” by Sarinee Achawananthakul