The head of a popular Thai political website went on trial Friday, charged with violating the country's tough cyber laws in a case seen as a bellwether for freedom of expression in the politically troubled nation.
Chiranuch Premchaiporn, manager of the Prachatai website, faces up to 20 years in prison on 10 separate charges of failing to promptly remove comments posted by readers on the website that allegedly defamed the country's monarchy.
The 2007 Computer Crime Act addresses hacking and other traditional online offences, but also bars the circulation of material deemed detrimental to national security or that causes public panic. Several people have been prosecuted under the law, but Chiranuch is the first webmaster to be tried, and her case has garnered the attention of free speech advocates around the world.
The courtroom Friday was packed with observers from local and international media organisations and activist groups.
''Whether we were in favor of the law or not, we always complied with it,'' Chiranuch told The Associated Press before the trial.
Thailand's freedom of speech reputation has taken a battering in recent years, as successive governments have tried to suppress political opposition. Its standing in the Press Freedom Index issued by the Paris-based group Reporters Without Borders slid to 153 last year from 65 in 2002, when the ratings were initiated.
Prachatai, which was founded by several respected journalists, senators and press freedom activists to serve as an independent, nonprofit, daily internet newspaper, has often run afoul of the government.
Chiranuch was arrested in March 2009 for the alleged offences.
''I'm not sure if Prachatai was targeted specifically,'' Chiranuch said earlier this week. ''All I can say is, given the circumstances, we were doing our job as we would normally do.''
Prachatai was one of scores of websites the government blocked during political unrest in Bangkok last year that turned violent and left about 90 people dead. The government claimed the sites stirred up unrest among ''Red Shirt'' protesters who were calling on Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to hold early elections.
Supinya Klangnarong, a media reform activist, said the Computer Crime Act ''has become a political tool of the state'' to close websites and arrest people.
''The Thai state has been intensely using the act as political punishment, instead of curbing actual computer-related crimes,'' she said.
Final testimony in Chiranuch's case is scheduled for February 17.
Late last year Chiranuch was charged with another set of offences, including lese majeste - defaming the monarchy - under another controversial law. The law mandates a jail term of three to 15 years for ''whoever defames, insults or threatens the king, the queen, the heir to the throne or the regent.''
Critics say it is mostly used as a weapon to punish political opponents, since almost any critical comment touching on the monarchy can be construed as disloyalty to the institution. As in Friday's case, Chiranuch denies breaking the law.
On Monday, the Criminal Court dropped a case against a woman accused of infringing the Computer Crime Act by posting offensive messages on the Prachatai website in 2008, saying the evidence that she had done it was inconclusive.- AP