By Wilawan Watcharasakwet
Thai authorities released 12 people on bail Friday after arresting them for sharing a Facebook post about a British tourist who claimed that she was drugged and raped while on a beach holiday in southern Thailand, a lawyer said.
Attorney Winyat Chatmontree said police arrested his clients this week and accused them of violating the nation’s Computer Crime Act by sharing false information that threatened Thailand’s security.
The charge carries a penalty of up to 5 years in prison, he said, adding that all of his clients who were arrested in several provinces were released after their relatives posted bail of 60,000 baht (U.S. $1,875) per person.
“To commit a crime, one must have intent. But the accused shared the posts without knowing that the information was false and they thought it was just a report by foreign entities,” Winyat told BenarNews.
The 19-year-old tourist, who has since returned to her home in England, claimed she was raped in June when she visited Koh Tao Island in Surat Thani province.
In her Facebook post, she alleged that Thai police refused to accept her rape complaint. But police denied her allegations and said evidence they had gathered did not support her version of events.
The multiple arrests and the woman’s rape claim threaten to revive the controversy that engulfed the nation four years ago, when Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha apologized for his bikini remarks in the face of an international outcry over the brutal murders of two British holidaymakers on the same island.
The murders of British tourists Hannah Witheridge and David Miller in 2014 tarnished the image of Koh Tao, a famous destination for foreign backpackers. But the prime minister provoked outrage after suggesting that “beautiful girls” visiting the country should not expect to be safe while wearing bikinis.
“They think our country is beautiful and is safe, so they can do whatever they want, they can wear bikinis and walk everywhere,” Prayuth, who is also the junta chief, told top government officials during a policy address.
“[But] can they be safe in bikinis … unless they are not beautiful?”
His remarks, which drew widespread condemnation, came just two days after the battered bodies of Miller, 24, and Witheridge, 23, were found on the southern island.
“I want to apologize for everything if my remark was too harsh and caused misunderstanding,” Prayuth said then, explaining that he did not intend to insult or blame anyone and was just trying to warn people to be more careful when travelling.
No sexual assault took place, police say
During a news conference on Thursday, Maj. Gen. Surachet Hakpan, deputy chief of the tourist police bureau, said his team of investigators had determined that no sexual assault had taken place, as alleged by the 19-year-old British woman.
“Our initial investigation concluded that there is no evidence to prove that the incident has happened, not a drug claim or a rape claim,” Surachet said, adding that his investigators were still awaiting evidence from British authorities.
Other than the 12 Thais, police have also issued arrest warrants on the administrator of a Facebook page and the British editor of the Samui Times, who left Thailand in 2015, after they allegedly criticized the police for not taking the woman’s formal complaint, officials said.
Critics say Thailand’s Computer Crime Act is a broadly worded law that has been used by the military junta to curb free speech.
On Friday, Human Rights Watch urged Thai authorities to immediately drop what it called “bogus charges” against the 12 suspects.
“Thai police appear to be using computer-related crime charges against anyone who questions their shoddy investigation of the Koh Tao island rape case,” Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.