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HK photographer facing Thai jail for ballistic vest

August 24, 2015

A Hong Kong photographer faces jail after he was detained for carrying a ballistic vest and helmet while covering the aftermath of last week’s deadly shrine bombing, police said Monday.

Anthony Kwan Hok-chun, who works for the Hong Kong-based Initium media group, was held by police after trying to depart Suvarnabhumi airport on Sunday.

There was confusion early Monday about whether Kwan would face a civilian or military court and what he has been charged with.

A senior officer at Suvarnabhumi Airport told AFP the case would go to a military tribunal.

“We took this case, he will be charged with the normal process,” Police Colonel Santi Wannarak said without elaborating.

But Kwan’s lawyer, Sirikarn Charoensiri, said the case was being handled by Samut Prakhan provincial court and that she was “waiting for court to order a pretrial detention and/or bail submission”.

Since seizing power in a coup last year, Thailand’s junta have ramped up use of military courts, particularly for any crimes that are deemed national security cases.

“Still waiting at the airport police station,” Kwan told AFP via text on Monday.

“All I know is I am going to court,” he added.

Basic personal protection equipment commonly used by media around the world such as gas masks, ballistic vests and helmets are classified as weapons under Thailand’s Arms Control Act and have to be licensed.

But attempts by media groups over the years to seek permission from authorities to carry such items have fallen on deaf ears despite the country’s long history of deadly street protests and a festering Muslim insurgency in the deep south.

Until now, the ban on civilians and journalists carrying unlicensed equipment has largely been ignored.

International media have flocked to Thailand following last Monday’s deadly shrine bombing, which cut down 20 people, mostly Asian tourists, in the heart of one of Bangkok’s busiest shopping districts and wounded scores more.

No arrests have been made with the police scrambling to identify the perpetrators of an attack that has sent shockwaves through the country’s vital tourist sector.

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand criticised Kwan’s arrest, adding that he faced five years in jail if convicted of breaching the Arms Control Act.

“Body armour and helmets used by journalists are not offensive weapons and should not be treated as such,” the FCCT said in a statement.

The FCCT said it has previously tried to ask the Thai authorities to address the issue “so that journalists can purchase, import and carry adequate protective equipment”.

It urged the junta to “find a solution.”

During Thailand’s regular bouts of often violent street protests, demonstrators on both sides of the country’s political divide have been seen donning ballistic vests and helmets.

Journalists have also worn such protection during periods of unrest largely without falling foul of police.

Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.