The trial of a labor rights activist with longstanding ties to garment industry unions was adjourned abruptly on Monday as supporters and family members raised concerns about his treatment in custody.
Somyot Prueksakasemsuk is facing two counts of lèse-majesté, or causing offense to the monarchy, for two articles published in “Voice of Taksin”, a magazine he edits. He rejects allegations that he wrote the articles. If convicted, he could face up to thirty years in prison.
According to his wife, Sukanya Pruksakasemsuk, Somyot’s trial in the southern Thai city of Songkhla was postponed after a prosecution witness who was based in Bangkok, the Thai capital located just over 620 miles away, failed to appear in court. Somyot had requested for the trial to take place in Bangkok, where he previously resided and was remanded. Sukanya, said that the trial, which began in November, had been located in four different provinces.
“We came to court early in the morning and waited until 10:30 when the judge told us the witness could not come,” said Sukanya. She said that although usual practice would be for witnesses to be called to Bangkok, her husband’s trial venue shifted according to the witnesses’ residences.
“It’s difficult for us to get observers and supporters to attend the court case in these remote places,” said Elizabeth Cotton, a lecturer in employment relations at Britain’s Middlesex University and a longtime friend of Somyot. “His supporters and family are exhausted and he is exhausted as well.”
Multiple attempts to reach the Thai Ministry of Justice for comment were unsuccessful.
Sukanya said that her husband suffers from chronic hypertension and gout but does not have easy access to medicine. “He has to take medicine everyday but in prison it is difficult to get medicine because the doctor only comes once a week,” she said. Somyot had made seven applications for bail, all of which were denied. An eighth application is pending.
On Saturday, Tai Panitan Pruksakasemsuk, Somyot’s son, began a 112-hour fast to protest his father’s treatment. Article 112 of Thailand’s criminal code contains the lèse-majesté law.
According to the Free Somyot Campaign, which Cotton helps organize, Somyot began working in the labor movement in 1981. He has worked with groups like the International Textile and Garment Worker’s Federation, as well as the Thai Garment Labor Union and the Textile Promotion Labor Union, to advocate causes like 90-day maternity leave. His case is being closely watched by groups like the Clean Clothes Campaign, a Netherlands-based workers’ rights lobby. Like many other industries in the Southeast Asian nation, the Thai garment industry is still recovering from devastating floods last year. The World Bank has estimated that the floods will cost Thailand $45 billion in damages.
Thailand’s lèse-majesté laws have come under increasing scrutiny since December when Joe Gordon, a Thai-born American citizen, was sentenced to 2.5 years prison after being charged with translating and posting on the Internet excerpts of a banned biography about Thailand’s monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
“We deeply regret the continued resistance by members of the Thai government…to enter into a reasoned, broad-based debate of the necessary reforms of the lèse majesté law in order to improve Thailand’s observance of its obligations under international human rights law and constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression,” said the directors of human rights groups like the International Federation for Human Rights and Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada in a letter they sent to Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra prior to Somyot’s trial.
The trial continues in Bangkok on April 18.