KUALA LUMPUR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The United Nations urged Thailand on Tuesday to drop criminal cases against female activists who campaign for the rights of their communities, amid concerns they face increasing harassment.

The call came after the wife of a prominent Thai land rights activist was jailed last week and a separate group of female activists who protested against a gold mining operation were indicted for breaching public assembly laws.

The U.N. Human Rights Office for Southeast Asia expressed concern over the two cases and said the female activists must be allow to campaign "without fear or threat of lawsuits, harassment, violence or intimidation". "The crucial work of women human rights defenders in Thailand should be enabled and protected, not prevented," its acting deputy representative Katia Chirizzi said in a statement.

Supap Kamlae, wife of missing rights campaigner Den Kamlae, was sentenced to six months in prison last Thursday for forest encroachment in a land dispute involving her community in northeast Thailand, the United Nations said.

Before his disappearance in April 2016, Den had been fighting for his community to be awarded legal title to land they occupy in a wildlife sanctuary. Authorities have denied any knowledge of his whereabouts.

In another case, seven women activists in the northeastern province of Loei face up to five and a half years in jail after they were indicted on July 25 for violating public assembly and criminal laws, according to the statement.

The women had led local residents in opposing a gold mining operation which they fear might jeopardize their health and the environment.

Thailand has a history of land rights activists disappearing or being killed.

Rural women at the forefront of rights issues related to land, environment and natural resources have been at increasing risk of violence, threats and harassment since Thailand's military seized power in a 2014 coup, according to a study last month by several rights groups.

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Photo source: Fernando Garcia via Flickr/Creative Commons (CC By-NC-ND 2.0(link is external)). Photo: © Fernando Garcia

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