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Charges against two Internet users "dropped", but chilling effect on online free expression remains, says SEAPA

(SEAPA/IFEX) - The case against two Internet users who were the first to be charged under Thailand's new Computer-Related Offences Commission Act continue to be shrouded in secrecy as the state prosecutors did not proceed with charges upon the deadline for filing them on 12 October 2007.

Despite the apparent good news, local free expression watchdogs fear that the charges may be filed anew as the statute of limitations for Thai laws is 10 years.

Appearing before Bangkok's Criminal Court on 12 October at the expiry of their custodial release, the two Internet users - a male web administrator whom police believe to have used the pseudonym "Praya Pichai" and a woman blogger whose online monicker was "Ton Chan" - were told they were discharged, not amounting to an acquittal, said Chiranuch Premchaiporn, the manager for independent web-based daily "Prachatai" who has been monitoring the cases.

According to "Prachatai" ( http://www.prachatai.com/english/news.php?id=308 ), the two were arrested on 24 August under Article 14 of the act, which views the insertion of forged or false computer data that may harm individuals, the public, or national security as an offence punishable with a maximum prison term of five years and a fine not exceeding 100,000 baht (approx. US$3,175), or both.

The arrests were first reported by "Financial Times" on 1 September. A chance encounter in the LadYoa prison between the detained web administrator and an anti-coup activist, Sombat Boonngarmanong, who was being detained for "criminal defamation", brought the case to the attention of "Prachatai" and subsequent legal and financial assistance from various individuals and groups. The man was released on bail on 6 September and the woman on 17 September.

Their cases have received scant coverage in the local media and they have been warned from speaking to the media. Chiranuch noted that on the day of the court appointment, mysterious men had tailed them in an apparent move of further intimidation.

Although the charges appear to have been dropped, the secrecy and attempts at intimidation that still surround the cases attest to SEAPA's concerns voiced earlier that the law is also taking aim at the Internet's anonymity that facilitates online free expression, thereby creating a chilling effect online.

Supinya Klangnarong, secretary-general for the advocacy group Campaign for Popular Media Reform, said the enforcement authorities appear to be confused about what constitutes a real crime and are thus abusing the law in going after those who are exercising their right to free expression on the Internet.

"To develop weblogs and websites, download files, post comments and share information are considered rights and freedoms in the democratic world, while computer crimes are [the acts of] spreading computer viruses and stealing personal information like credit card numbers.

Since the law took effect, the authorities have never talked about credit card fraud or virus propagation, and instead kept watching over who wrote what," she told "Prachatai".

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