Australian journalist Alan Morison and his colleague Chutima “Oi” Sidasathian must now wait until September 1 to learn whether they will face jail time after there three-day trial for defamation of the royal Thai Navy and so-called computer crimes concluded on the Thai holiday island of Phuket yesterday.

The charges carry a potential combined sentence of seven years in jail. The final day of the trail was devoted to the witnesses for the defence; the first two had been witnesses for the prosecution.

The pair had been hoping that their case wound be dropped after the full extent of the people-trafficking and human-smuggling rings — on which they had been reporting almost since the beginning of founding the Phuketwan website — came to light and was revealed as south-east Asia’s biggest refugee crisis since the Vietnam War.

But despite the best efforts of both the Australian government and people within the Thai military junta, it proceeded as planned from Tuesday through to Thursday this week.

“Freedom of the press, including freedom for journalists to operate without fear of reprisals, is essential in promoting transparency and accountability on issues of public interest,” the United Nations said in a statement.

It would have been worthy if the Australian government had made similar comments, but impressive behind-the-scenes-efforts and the attendance at the trial by two senior embassy officials did not translate into any strong public statements of support. This is now business as usual for Australia, which is cowed by authoritarian regimes across Asia, especially China, yet arcs up constantly at Indonesia, one of the region’s most democratic countries. Take from that what you will.

Abdul Kalam is a Bangkok-based activist and Rohingya community representative who has been used by government organisations and the Immigration Department to trace jungle camps for boat people and to interview the survivors.

He told the court that there were many Rohingya who told him there had been navy personnel involved in the selling of captured boat people to traffickers — as reported by Reuters in its July 17, 2013 story. Phuketwan quoted the Reuters story, and it is that quote that has got Morison and Sidasathian into trouble with the authorities.

“His testimony indicated that an official investigation is needed into the allegations. That’s the reaction that should have followed two years ago when Reuters and Phuketwan first carried the information,” Morison told Crikey following the completion of the trial.

Kalam did not say whether that allegation were true or not, but he said the comment was made often when he worked as a translator.

Other expert witnesses, including Dr Niran Pitakwatchara from the Thailand Human Rights Commission, expanded on the previous evidence.

The small Phuket courtroom was so packed that a video feed of the proceeding had to be beamed into another court to accommodate the number of international and Australian observers of the trial, including representatives from Reporters Without Borders and the International Federation of Journalists.

The trial has inadvertently exposed fissures in the apparent unity of Thailand’s military forces. In an editorial this morning, English-language daily The Nation — generally seen as being supportive of the junta — wrote an editorial entitled “Shooting the messengers won’t restore the Navy’s ‘face'”.

The paper asked if the junta had “the courage and common sense to do the right thing” and drop the charges. It is not too late.

“The longer this case drags on, the more embarrassment Thailand must endure,” The Nation wrote.

“A more sensible approach would be to launch an inquiry into Reuters’ allegation. But instead of taking that route, the Navy has decided to harass the messengers.

“In doing so it threatens to set a precedent that would open the way to further persecution of civil society by the military. And choosing that path could damage the confidence of prospective investors both domestic and foreign, further undermining our already shaky economy.

“Shooting the messengers will do nothing to restore the Navy’s loss of face, but by doing the right thing and dropping the charges, it can at least retrieve its dignity.”

The pair face a potential seven-year jail term that Morison, 67, does not believe he would survive, given the bleak conditions in Phuket’s prison.

Last week the Thai government sent 100 Muslim Uighurs back to China, where they face almost certain continued persecution, possible jail sentences and even death. From Australia, again, not a peep.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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