A Thai court has set trial dates for a Hong Kong-based photojournalist arrested in August on charges of violating Thai law for possessing a bulletproof vest and helmet after covering a bombing at a Bangkok shrine.
Hok Chun Anthony Kwan, 30, learned at a Nov. 16 pretrial hearing that he will have to head back to court in Bangkok next year for four days in April, Kwan's friend Mark Vancleave told NBC News. Kwan's arrest has drawn sharp criticism from journalist organizations in Hong Kong, as well as from the Asian American Journalists Association, of which Kwan was a member while attending college in Minnesota.
"It's kind of a tough position he's in," said Vancleave, who added that Kwan has unintentionally become a "model for legal theory" in the Thai government's prosecution of journalists who carry body armor while reporting in the field.
In Thailand, a license is necessary to possess bulletproof vests and helmets, considered weapons under Thai law, according to the country's Arms Control Act of 1987. Many media outlets require journalists to wear such gear while on assignment in areas prone to violence.
Kwan was photographing the Aug. 17 bombing of a Bangkok shrine that killed 22 people and was carrying body armor and a helmet when he was taken into custody Aug. 23 by Thai police as he tried to board a flight back to Hong Kong, where he works for Initium Media.
Kwan, who is free on bail, pleaded not guilty to weapons charges on Oct. 12 and was granted permission to leave Thailand after his case was transferred from a military court to a civilian one, Vancleave said. He is now in Hong Kong with his parents and flies to Thailand for court dates.
An email sent to the Thai government seeking comment was not returned.
If convicted, Kwan, who holds citizenship in Canada and Hong Kong, faces up to five years in prison. Vancleave, who spoke with Kwan after the pretrial hearing, said Kwan continues to work as a photojournalist and recently covered the historic Nov. 8 elections in Myanmar.
Vancleave, who met Kwan in 2010 when they worked together on the Minnesota Daily, the University of Minnesota's student newspaper, said Kwan is still holding out hope that the Thai government will drop the case before it heads to trial next year. He added that Kwan is overwhelmed by all the support he has received from friends in the U.S. and in Canada, as well as from the photojournalism community in Minnesota, but said the arrest and pending trial has still taken a toll on Kwan.
"It's all become a bit of a grind," Vancleave said. "He's in the middle of it right now. I think he always has a very positive, optimistic outlook."