BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai civil society groups voiced concern on Thursday over a criminal defamation and libel action brought by the army against a human rights activist, the latest in a rising number of such cases faced by rights workers and journalists.
After a military coup on May 22, the Thai army has cracked down vigorously on dissenters, including critics of the monarchy, and is increasingly turning to the criminal defamation law to do so, civil society groups say.
"The army's action is arbitrary and heavy-handed," said Anucha Wintachai of rights group the Union for Civil Liberties."It highlights what appears to be an increasing number of criminal defamation suits brought against those doing a public service, including rights workers and those in the media."
On Sunday, human rights activist Pornpen Khongkachonkiet received a criminal defamation and libel summons from an army task force that specializes in the interrogation of suspected insurgents in Thailand's Muslim-dominated southern provinces.
The army has accused Pornpen of damaging its reputation through the publication of an open letter alleging torture and mistreatment of people detained by the security forces in the south, where a conflict has raged for more than a decade.
"The legal action against me has had a multi-faceted impact," Pornpen told Reuters in a telephone interview.
"Victims are scared off from coming forward and speaking to me and it prevents me from doing my work. I understand they want me to stop working. If that's what they want, I can't do it."
An army official declined to comment on the case when contacted by Reuters. Pornpen is required to report to police on Sept. 14. If found guilty, she could face up to 2 years in prison and a fine of 200,000 baht (3618 pounds).
Criminal defamation suits have a 96 percent conviction rate, said David Streckfuss, an independent scholar based in Thailand, and an expert on its laws designed to protect the monarchy.
Since the coup, General Prayuth Chana-ocha, the coup leader and Thailand's newly appointed prime minister, has repeatedly vowed to prosecute critics of the monarchy under another set of laws, draconian lese-majeste legislation that carries a maximum jail term of 15 years.
At least 13 new lese-majeste cases have been opened for investigation since the coup, the United Nations rights office said in a statement last week.
The measures add to a larger pattern of increasing curbs on freedom of expression in Thailand, said Ravina Shamdasani, spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
"The army says its reputation is damaged, when actually the effect of these suits is to silence efforts to shed light on potential rights abuses," said Anucha, the member of the Union for Civil Liberties.
(Reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Simon Webb and Clarence Fernandez)