University of Minnesota graduate jailed in Thailand for wearing a flak jacket

A University of Minnesota graduate with a passion for photography was arrested and charged in Thailand after authorities there said he was carrying illegal weapons, which was actually just protective clothing.

Anthony Kwan has an eye for capturing candid moments, but now the freelance photojournalist who's covered news stories all over the world has become the subject of one himself.  Kwan, who now calls Hong Kong his home, went to Thailand to document the aftermath of a bombing in Bangkok that left 20 people dead and more than 120 injured.

But he was arrested at the airport on his way to Hong Kong on Sunday when authorities found a flak jacket and a helmet in his carry-on luggage -- which is considered military equipment in Thailand. And its owner must have a license.

"It’s hard for us to think logically that body armor could be the equivalent to a munition but that's the way the Thai law works,” University of Minnesota law professor Jane Kirtley said.

Kirtley has traveled to Thailand to talk about freedom of the press.  She said in the past law enforcement there has turned a blind eye toward reporters protecting themselves with body armor.  But the government has gotten more repressive since a military coup about a year ago.

"I think it’s a disgrace to suggest that for a journalist to protect himself constitutes engaging in warfare, it’s outrageous,” she said. “It’s a classic example of using the law to intimidate the press."

Kwan was born and raised in Hong Kong, but while studying engineering at the University of Minnesota, he joined the Minnesota Daily school newspaper as a staff photographer and gave up his engineering career to become a professional freelance photographer.

Now he's being charged possessing an illegal weapon, which could carry up to 5 years in prison. But Kirtley hopes it doesn't come to that -- "We always hope that international pressure will encourage regimes to think twice about the message they are sending to the rest of the world when they are trying to repress journalists but I don't know."

Kwan was released from jail, but he's not allowed to leave Thailand. This is one case a lot of freedom of the press groups will be keeping an eye on.