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Journalists acquitted of defaming country's navy

By Agencies in Phuket, Thailand | China Daily | Updated: 2015-09-02 07:42

An Australian journalist and his Thai colleague were acquitted of criminal defamation on Tuesday over an online news report implicating Thailand's navy in human trafficking.

The pair were also found not guilty of breaching the nation's tough Computer Crimes Act in a high-profile trial that had sparked condemnation from human rights groups and the United Nations.

Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian, of the Phuketwan news website, had faced up to seven years in jail over a July 2013 article quoting a Reuters news agency investigation that said some Thai navy members were involved in trafficking Rohingya Muslims fleeing Myanmar.

The Phuket Provincial Court acquitted the pair, their lawyer, Siriwan Vongkietpaisan, said shortly after the verdict was delivered.

The two journalists had faced up to two years in prison on the defamation charge and five years for the computer crimes offense.

Morison and Chutima smiled, embraced and shook hands with people in the packed courtroom after the judge acquitted them.

Speaking after the verdict, Chutima said: "The judge did the right thing. This is a big step for freedom of expression and freedom of the media in Thailand."

The acquittal came after the region's human-trafficking trade was dramatically laid bare this year when dozens of migrants' graves were found on the Thai-Malaysia border.

As the network unraveled amid a Thai crackdown, migrants were abandoned at sea and in jungle camps, in a crisis that eventually forced Southeast Asian governments to respond.

Southern Thailand has long been known as a nexus for lucrative and largely unchecked smuggling networks through which persecuted Rohingya Muslims in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, and Bangladeshi economic migrants, pass on their way to Malaysia.

Officials have been accused by human rights groups of turning a blind eye to the trade, as well as complicity in it.

Thai prosecutors have indicted 72 people over the trade, including local officials and a senior army general. However, no other military figures have been arrested, despite claims by rights groups and observers that is was unlikely such an influential officer would have acted alone.

Last month, for the second year in a row, Thailand was placed on the bottom tier of US rankings of countries failing to tackle human trafficking.

Reuters has not been charged over its reporting, part of a series honored with a Pulitzer Prize last year.

David Crundwell, the chief spokesman for Reuters, said the news agency was pleased by the verdict.

The navy has 30 days to appeal.

AFP - Reuters

 Journalists acquitted of defaming country's navy

Thai journalist Chutima Sidasathian (left) and Australian journalist Alan Morison arrive at court in Phuket, Thailand, on Tuesday. The two were acquitted of criminally defaming the Thai navy in 2013.  Athit Perawongmetha / Reuters

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