Activists warn courts used to silence communities

Activists warn courts used to silence communities

The judicial system has become a tool to silence local communities which lock horns with investors and private firms, rights advocates warned yesterday.

In the past decade, the number of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) has risen sharply in Thailand, said human rights lawyer Sor Rattanamanee Polkla.

The lawsuits, targeting local activists, are often filed by private companies with the aim of intimidating local communities into ceasing their protests against controversial development plans or activities that threaten environmental sustainability.

By using SLAPPs, companies expect the defendants to fold, giving in to fear, legal costs or exhaustion and to abandon their criticism. In many cases, other community members are intimidated and deterred from taking part in the debate.

Such lawsuits do not affect the activists alone, she added, but threaten their families and, eventually, the entire community.

"It looks like the law is on the side of the rich," said Vaewrin Buangern, a local activist from Lampang involved in legal cases concerning quarrying. She faces defamation charges.

Ms Vaewrin said the judicial system may be flawed when it considers such complaints against villagers. The plight of local communities is often ignored during trials, with judges only paying attention to evidence directly linked to the accusation.

"Instead of protecting our rights, the courts do not look at the root cause of the problem and end up finding us guilty of defamation or encroachment," she said.

It is hard to keep faith in the judicial system, she added, when the process is akin to a second blow to villagers.

Communities already have their hands tied earning an income and fighting to protect natural resources and their livelihoods. To deal with a legal case is an additional stress factor, Ms Vaewrin argued.

Last year, an example of SLAPPs made headlines, as gold mining firm Tungkum Ltd filed a lawsuit against a 15-year-old student, Wanpen Khunna, in Loei province, accusing her of defamation. She gave an interview to Thai PBS in which she decried the adverse consequences of the firm's mining activities in Loei.

Prior to this case, Tungkum Ltd had already filed legal suits against several other villagers in Loei, who had been protesting against its gold mines, after poisonous substances were found in the soil and water close to communities.

Sarapan Rujichaiyavat, a member of the Khon Rak Ban Kerd group in Loei, is protesting against gold mining. In 2015, he and other villagers sent a letter to the Loei governor, seeking answers after they heard reports that Tungkum Ltd acted illegally in pursuing its mining activities. However, a picture of the letter surfaced on a social media page and Mr Sarapan was prosecuted for defamation.

The lawsuit against him was filed in Mae Sot, after the company said the employee who discovered the post was based in the province.

Travel fees to meet court appointments in Mae Sot put a strain on the community rights group's finances while Mr Sarapan faced additional charges under the Computer Crime Act. He was released on 100,000-baht bail.

The lawsuit was withdrawn at the start of 2016 after an arbitration process.

SLAPPs are problematic in the sense they are not treated like public interest cases but as conflicts between two private parties, Ms Sor Rattanamanee added. A screening process must be implemented for courts to review lawsuits and be able to drop those likely to be SLAPPs.

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