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HK photographer facing Thai jail for bullet-proof vest

August 24, 2015

A Hong Kong photographer may face five years in jail after he was detained for carrying a bullet-proof 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.

“We took this case, he will be charged with the normal process,” Police Colonel Santi Wannarak, a senior officer at the airport, told AFP adding that Kwan could face a military trial.

The photographer’s lawyer, Sirikarn Charoensiri, said the preliminary hearings were held at a civilian court in Samut Prakhan province, where her client was charged with breaching Thailand’s Arms Control Act.

“Having a bullet-proof vest in possession without permission is subject to five years in jail and/or fine of no more than 50,000 baht ($1,400),” she wrote in a text to AFP.

He was later granted bail, she added.

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

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 must 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 the August 17 shrine bombing which killed 20 people, mostly Asian tourists, in the heart of one of Bangkok’s busiest shopping districts. Scores more were wounded.

No arrests have been made and the police have scrambled to identify the perpetrators of an attack that has sent shockwaves through the 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,” it said in a statement.

The FCCT said it has previously asked 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 political divide have donned 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.