Thai lawyer drops defamation suit against BBC reporter

BBC correspondent Jonathan Head had faced up to five years in jail in Thailand after he reported on how foreigners were being scammed of their retirement homes in the country.

Phuket (Thailand) (AFP) - A Thai lawyer has dropped his criminal defamation suit against a BBC correspondent following his investigation into foreigners being scammed of their retirement homes in the country, the broadcaster said Thursday.

Jonathan Head, the BBC's Southeast Asia correspondent, faced up to five years in jail after his report exposed how two foreign retirees had Phuket properties stolen from them by a network of criminals and corrupt officials.

Rights groups said the case highlighted how Thailand's broad defamation and computer crime laws scupper investigative journalism and make it difficult to uncover wrongdoing in an endemically corrupt country.

The lawyer who brought the suit -- Pratuan Thanarak -- decided to drop the charges against Head on the first day of the trial on Wednesday.

"The plaintiff has withdrawn his case against BBC journalist Jonathan Head, but as the trial of his co-defendant is continuing, we cannot comment further at present," the BBC said in a short statement.

Foreigners cannot own land in Thailand but they often get around it by putting assets in the name of Thais, or by setting up majority Thai-owned shell companies.

The 2015 BBC report detailed how a network of Phuket criminals, aided by corrupt officials, stole properties from foreigners by forging land title transfers.

One of the victims who featured in the report, British national Ian Rance, is a joint defendant in the prosecution. He still faces a single defamation charge and up to two years in jail if convicted.

Rance said he lost $1.2 million worth of properties after his then wife and a gang of money-lenders forged property paperwork.

According to the report, Pratuan admitted on tape to certifying Rance's signature without him being present, a move which helped the wife transfer his properties out of his name.

She was later convicted and jailed for the scam, but Rance has been hit by a slew of legal cases since going public, a common outcome faced by whistleblowers in Thailand which markets itself as an ideal retirement destination for wealthy foreigners.

The criminal complaint filed by Pratuan, which AFP has seen, alleges Rance "defamed" him by talking to the BBC sometime in September 2015 but there are no details of what was said or how it was defamatory.

AFP understands the BBC will continue to fund Rance's defamation defence.

Pratuan and Rance both declined to comment when contacted by AFP on Thursday, citing ongoing proceedings.

Unlike most countries where defamation is a civil crime, in Thailand it is a criminal offence.

Private citizens can also launch their own prosecutions and they are not forced to pay costs if they lose.

Similar cases have been brought in recent years.

Local news site Phuketwan closed down in 2015 after running out of money in its successful bid to defeat a suit brought by Thailand's navy.

Andrew Drummond, a British crime reporter, left the country the same year because of multiple cases brought by those he exposed, as did British labour rights activist Andy Hall in 2016.

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