Charges against Loei activists dismissed, mining protest to go on

Charges against Loei activists dismissed, mining protest to go on

People from Loei province's Wang Saphung district rally at the Stock Exchange of Thailand, calling for scrutiny of Thung Kham gold mining company's governance.
People from Loei province's Wang Saphung district rally at the Stock Exchange of Thailand, calling for scrutiny of Thung Kham gold mining company's governance.

A Loei court has dismissed all charges against seven female activists accused of violating public assembly laws, just weeks after a United Nations team called on the government to end attacks on human rights campaigners.

The activists, all women, in November 2016 blocked access to a meeting at a local government office in Loei province in Thailand's northeast to protest a request by a gold mining company to expand operations near their homes. They were charged by prosecutors on behalf of 16 people who said they were unable to attend the scheduled meeting due to the 20-hour protest.

The court in northeastern Loei province ruled on Thursday that the women had been invited to attend a meeting at the council office, and that they did not breach any law, according to Teerapun Phankeeree, lawyer for the activists.

They had been accused of holding a gathering that blocked access to the council office, and violating a law that forbids some public assemblies.

The Loei Provincial Court dropped all charges against them, stating they had “innocently expressed their opinions, which is within their basic rights under the system of democracy.” They had also been charged with compelling a person, by threat or violence, to act against his will. Had they been convicted they could have faced more than five years in prison.

The court also stated that the defendants lived in the area of the Tung Kham Ltd gold mine and thus their livelihoods were directly affected by the mining operations, which they said contaminated public water sources with dust, heavy metals, rat poison and high levels of manganese.

Villagers had been protesting since 2006 against the mine's alleged pollution and had blocked the company's trucks from the road leading to the mine's entrance at least three times since 2013. On one of those occasions in 2014 they were attacked and beaten at night by about 200 armed men. Two military men were convicted and jailed for orchestrating the assault.

Tung Kham has brought at least 19 criminal and civil complaints against 33 Loei residents since 2007.

The company's license to operate in forest areas expired about five years ago, curtailing most of its operation.

Pornthip Hongchai, one of the acquitted defendants, said she was "satisfied and happy" with the court's ruling. She was worried, however, that a new mining law might allow operations to resume, and that nothing had been done to deal with the residual pollution.

“There is still contamination within our six villages surrounding the mine. No officials or any department have come to seriously fix or address the problem yet. Villagers know that the water is contaminated and we have to be careful and look after ourselves. We still have to buy water to drink and cook with. We've been buying water since 2009 when there was a public health announcement.”

Now, the women "are likely to continue to oppose the mining operations," Mr Teerapun said.

"The community not only wanted the company to stop operating, they wanted the company and government agencies to restore the environment, as well," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Thailand's military government has come under fire from the international community for crackdowns on dissidents and restricting rights, including holding protest rallies.

Rural women activists fighting for land, environment and resources are particularly at risk of violence, threats and harassment since the May 2014 coup, according to a report published last year.

The United Nations last year had urged Thailand to drop criminal cases against female activists who campaign for the rights of their communities.

Thursday's verdict may encourage more communities to protect their rights to land and resources, said Sutharee Wannasri at advocacy group Fortify Rights.

"The decision of the court to dismiss the charges against the activists is an important step to guarantee the right to peaceful assembly," she said.

But she added that restrictions remain in place.

"The authorities should amend the peaceful assembly law to be in line with international standards, and dismiss all charges against activists who express their opinion and engage in peaceful protests," she said.

Earlier this month, the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights said it was concerned about "unreasonable and unwarranted restrictions" on affected communities.

After its first visit to Thailand, the working group called on authorities to "end recurring attacks, harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders and community representatives." 

(Video YouTube/CIEE Khon Kaen)

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