PHUKET, Thailand (AP) — Testimony began Tuesday in a criminal defamation lawsuit filed by Thailand's navy against a small news website over a report it posted saying naval forces accepted money to assist or turn a blind eye to the trafficking of refugees from Myanmar by sea.
The navy also accused 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 widespread criticism from human rights and press freedom groups around the world.
The case came to trial following the discovery in May of dozens of bodies buried at several jungle camps on the Thai-Malaysian border where traffickers held migrants as prisoners. Many of the migrants are ethnic Rohingya from Myanmar who face persecution at home. In many cases, the migrants pay to be smuggled by ship, but are then detained by traffickers in Thailand who hold them until their families pay ransoms.
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.
However, the recent publicity about the camps prompted a Thai government crackdown on trafficking, and several dozen people were arrested, including a Thai army general and local officials.
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. It recommended that Thailand stop bringing criminal defamation cases against researchers or journalists who report on human trafficking.
The New York-based literary and rights advocacy group PEN American Center urged the Thai government 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 contested report on the Phuketwan 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.
The trial's first witness, Capt. Pallop Komalodaka, said the navy also filed a lawsuit against Reuters, but that case remains with the prosecutor's office pending any further action.
Phuketwan earlier said 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, it said.
"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, said he believes the case was filed because Phuketwan had been reporting extensively on the Rohingya boat people for seven years, "and a couple of officers within the service have just become annoyed, perhaps a little paranoid and reacted in a strange way."
"More than once we've been asked to apologize and we've resisted that at every opportunity," he told The Associated Press, describing the lawsuit as "a vindictive overreaction."
Capt. Pallop said the navy had talked with Phuketwan over the possibility of dropping the defamation charges, but the negotiations failed.
"We had asked them to hold a press conference to apologize publicly for the article, but they said they would only express regrets. Therefore, a deal wasn't struck," he testified.
He said the allegations against the navy had been investigated and "so far we have not found any wrongdoing."
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 testimony from witnesses this week.
"The real message of this trial to Thailand's journalists is report at your own risk because big brother in Bangkok is watching — but fortunately, when they went after Alan and Chutima, the navy and the ruling military junta came up against two courageous journalists who are not afraid to fight for their principles," Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, said Tuesday. "They deserve the international community's unstinting support."
Associated Press writer Grant Peck in Bangkok contributed to this report.