Thai court dismisses charges against women activists, mining protests to go on

BANGKOK (REUTERS) - A Thai court has dismissed all charges against seven female activists accused of violating public assembly laws, just weeks after a United Nations team called on the government to end attacks on human rights campaigners.

The court in northeastern Loei province ruled on Thursday (April 19) that the women had been invited to attend a meeting at the council office, and that they did not breach any law, according to Ms Teerapun Phankeeree, lawyer for the activists.

They had been accused of holding a gathering that blocked access to the council office, and violating a law that forbids some public assemblies.

The women belonged to a local environmental group which has long demanded the permanent closure of a gold mine they said was hurting their health and the environment.

Local officials had filed the charges after the protest in November 2016, and the women faced more than five years in prison.

Now, the women "are likely to continue to oppose the mining operations", Ms Teerapun said.

"The community not only wanted the company to stop operating, they wanted the company and government agencies to restore the environment as well," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Thailand's military government has come under fire from the international community for crackdowns on dissidents and restricting rights, including holding protest rallies.

Rural women activists fighting for land, environment and resources are particularly at risk of violence, threats and harassment since the May 2014 coup, according to a report published last year.

The United Nations last year had urged Thailand to drop criminal cases against female activists who campaign for the rights of their communities.

Thursday's verdict may encourage more communities to protect their rights to land and resources, said Ms Sutharee Wannasri at advocacy group Fortify Rights.

"The decision of the court to dismiss the charges against the activists is an important step to guarantee the right to peaceful assembly," she said.

But she added that restrictions remain in place.

"The authorities should amend the peaceful assembly law to be in line with international standards, and dismiss all charges against activists who express their opinion and engage in peaceful protests," she said.

Earlier this month, the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights said it was concerned about "unreasonable and unwarranted restrictions" on affected communities.

After its first visit to Thailand, the working group called on authorities to "end recurring attacks, harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders and community representatives".