It all started with a few comments on the Internet. Anthony Chai, who owns a computer store in Long Beach, Calif., wrote remarks on Netfirms.com — a Swedish-owned website hosted by a Canadian company incorporated in Delaware.
Exactly what Chai wrote is in dispute. He may have condemned a Thai law that criminalizes insults against the country’s king. He may have outright criticized the royal family.
In either case, Chai was perfectly within his First Amendment rights as an American. But he was born in Thailand, holds a Thai passport and used to visit the country frequently to look after family and business interests.
The law criminalizing remarks against the king has become a “political weapon” in Thailand. Last month the country charged another American citizen with insulting the monarchy; if convicted, he could face 15 years in prison.
After Netfirms allegedly turned Chai’s IP and email address over to the Thai government some time before May 2006, he was detained on a visit to Bangkok — but was later released. Thai police then interrogated him later that year in a McDonald’s at Los Angeles International Airport and at a hotel in Hollywood. In 2009, Thailand issued a warrant for his arrest. Chai said he has not renewed his Thai passport.
That, said Allison Lefrak, the litigation director for Human Rights USA, should have all Americans worried. Lefrak helped Chai file a lawsuit on Aug. 24, 2011, against Netfirms, which earlier this year was acquired by a Burlington, Mass.-based company called The Endurance International Group. Endurance did not respond to a request for comment.
“The concept that a U.S. company could, or would, disclose private confidential information to a foreign government with a record of human rights violations, that’s not specific to Thai citizens,” Lefrak said. “Who’s to say they wouldn’t do it in another case?”
Now, Chai said, he lives in fear for himself and his family. If the details included in Chai’s lawsuit are accurate, that fear is understandable.
While he was in Thailand, one officer allegedly told him, “I know where your relatives live in Bangkok and California. If you want them to live in peace, you must cooperate,” according the lawsuit.
During those interrogations, Chai was held in a hotel room and denied access to the U.S. Embassy, the lawsuit states. After his detention, Chai left the country. Thai Police Col. Yanophon Yuengyuen, however, then allegedly hounded him to return. Chai declined, but agreed to be interviewed twice, first at a McDonald’s at the Los Angeles International Airport and later at a hotel in Hollywood.
“I agreed to the subsequent meetings in the U.S. with the hope that, if I cooperated, the case would be dropped, but I was wrong,” Chai said through a lawyer.
In July 2006, Chai and Yanaphon met “for approximately 30 minutes at a McDonald’s restaurant at LAX,” the lawsuit says.
Months later, Chai agreed to another, more intensive interrogation at the Magic Castle Hotel in Hollywood. “At this interrogation,” the lawsuit states, Chai “brought three witnesses, out of fear for his safety and to attest to his credibility.”
“On behalf of the Thai government,” the suit continues, Yanaphon and two other Thai officials interrogated him.
For more than two hours on Nov. 2, 2006, and another four hours on Nov. 3, Chai met with Thai officials, the lawsuit says. The Thais promised Chai he could return to his native county without fear of prosecution, but refused to give him written assurances.
Both times Chai was interrogated, Lefrak said, “those officials should have contacted the Department of State before contacting a U.S. citizen in conjunction with a criminal investigation.”
The State Department did not return a request for comment. Thailand is a key U.S. ally in Asia.
In one of the more disturbing aspects of the case, Chai claims the Thai police colonel, Yanaphon, told him he was in the United States for a training course provided by the U.S. Information Agency. That agency has been defunct since 1999, but it was a subdivision of the State Department, and some of its responsibilities have since been transferred to other parts of the State Department.
Yanaphon has since been promoted by the Thai government. In September, he will speak at a cybersecurity conference in Singapore that also features an American Marines colonel.