PHUKET, Thailand (AP) — Testimony started Tuesday in a criminal defamation lawsuit the Thai navy has filed against a small news website over a report it posted alleging naval forces accepted money to abet or turn a blind eye to the seaborne trafficking of refugees from Myanmar.
Denying the allegation, the navy also charges the two journalists from the Phuketwan website with violating Thailand's Computer Crime Act by publishing the article online. If found guilty, Australian editor Alan Morison and his Thai colleague Chutima Sidasathien could each face up to seven years in prison and fines totaling 300,000 baht ($8,815).
The case has drawn criticism from human rights and press freedom groups around the world.
The New York-based literary and rights advocacy group PEN American Center recently urged the government of Thailand to "refocus its energies on curbing collusion in human rights abuses by members of its own navy, rather than frivolous attempts to camouflage them by shackling the press."
The Phuketwan case comes to trial in the wake of the discovery in May this year of dozens of bodies buried at several jungle camps on the Thai-Malaysian border where traffickers held migrants as prisoners. Most of the migrants are ethnic Rohingya from Myanmar who face persecution and poor economic opportunities at home. In many cases, the migrants pay to be smuggled by ship, but are then detained by traffickers in Thailand, who hold them for ransom from their families, or sell them.
Human rights activists and foreign governments have long accused Thai authorities of collusion in the trafficking industry but police, military and government officials have denied the allegations.
The recent publicity about the camps caused a major Thai government crackdown on trafficking, and the several dozen people were arrested, including a Thai army general and local officials. Many police were transferred from their posts.
The U.S. State Department downgraded Thailand in its 2014 Trafficking in Persons report, designating it as a country that has not made sufficient progress in tackling human trafficking or made significant efforts to do so. The U.S. report recommended that Thailand stop bringing criminal defamation cases against researchers or journalists who report on human trafficking.
The contested report by the online news website was excerpted from an extensive story published by the international news agency Reuters in July 2013. The Reuters story was one of a series about persecution of the Rohingya that won the agency the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting. Reuters was not sued.
Phuketwan said last month that most of the legal costs of the case are being met by the London-based Media Legal Defense Initiative. But the navy's action threatens to sink the website, according to a note it recently posted.
"Our reporting on vital matters about Phuket and Thailand will come to an end next week and may never resume," it said. "Phuketwan's future is uncertain because of a highly controversial criminal defamation action."
Morison, 67, a native of Melbourne, Australia, told The Associated Press the two journalists have "been waiting a long time for this to happen purely because we refused to acknowledge that we've done anything wrong."
"More than once we've been asked to apologize and we've resisted that at every opportunity," he said.
The Royal Thai Navy has ignored calls for the charges to be dismissed.
"This is a criminal lawsuit and the charges for the Computer Crime Act cannot be dropped. The matter is being handled by the committee set up by the Royal Thai Navy," navy spokesman Rear Admiral Karn Dee-ubol told The Associated Press, adding that he was unable to comment further.
Thai courts rarely rule against the military, which is in an even stronger position than usual since staging a coup in May last year that deposed an elected civilian government.
The court is expected to set a date for the verdict after three days of hearing witnesses from both sides this week.
"The trial of these two journalists, who just did their job as news providers with a great deal of professionalism, poses a great danger to all those independent voices in Thailand who want to use their freedom of expression and information," Benjamin Ismail, head of the Asia-Pacific desk of Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, said in a statement last week.
"We urge Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha and his military government to end their policy of harassing the media. They need to understand that the media do not threaten national security or political stability but, on the contrary, help to improve society."
Associated Press Writer Grant Peck contributed to this report from Bangkok.