A Thai court has ruled that a Hong Kong-based photojournalist arrested in August on charges of violating Thai law for possessing a bulletproof vest and helmet will have to stand trial.
The decision to pursue charges against Hok Chun Anthony Kwan drew criticism from the Asian American Journalists Association, of which Kwan was a member while attending college in Minnesota.
“We urge the Thai government, along with our colleagues around the world, to take into consideration the professional precautions that journalists must take to ensure their own safety,” wrote AAJA President Paul Cheung in a statement on the association’s website.
The Asia chapter of AAJA joined three other journalist organizations in Hong Kong in expressing dismay over Kwan’s Aug. 23 arrest in Bangkok, Thailand. Kwan, 30, was covering 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 by Thai police as he tried to board a flight back to Hong Kong, where he works for Initium Media.
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, who is free on bail, pleaded not guilty to weapons charges on Oct. 12. A judge set a pretrial hearing for Nov. 16; his case is expected to come to trial sometime in 2016, according to the Associated Press. Kwan, who holds citizenship in Canada and Hong Kong, faces up to five years in prison if convicted.
In an Aug. 25 joint statement, issued two days after Kwan's arrest, the Hong Kong Press Photographers Association, Hong Kong Journalists Association, and Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Hong Kong all urged the Thai government not to proceed with a criminal trial against Kwan, saying it should work with media in Thailand to help decriminalize “the legitimate use of body armor and other relevant protective items.”
An email sent Thursday evening to the Thai government’s press office seeking comment was not returned.
Mark Vancleave, a video journalist at the Minneapolis Star Tribune and friend of Kwan, told NBC News that Kwan didn’t know he was breaking Thai law by carrying the bulletproof vest and helmet. Vancleave, who met Kwan in 2010 when they worked together on the Minnesota Daily, the University of Minnesota’s student newspaper, added that Kwan fully understands the “severity of the potential outcome” of this case.
“He’s been out of Minneapolis now for almost two years, and there are dozens of people concerned about his case and following him,” said Vancleave, who has kept in touch with Kwan frequently since his arrest. “I’m sure he’s a bit overwhelmed.”
Kwan was granted permission to leave Thailand after his case was transferred from a military court to a civilian one, Vancleave said. Kwan is now in Hong Kong with his parents.
Vancleave said that Kwan, who gave up aerospace engineering for journalism while at the University of Minnesota, continues to work while awaiting trial, a decision that Vancleave said speaks volumes about Kwan’s character.
“This is a guy who was very close to finishing a degree in aerospace, which would have been a lot more lucrative than photojournalism, and he walked away from it for what he loved,” Vancleave said.