An Australian journalist and his Thai colleague have been acquitted in a criminal defamation lawsuit filed by Thailand's navy over an online news report about the trafficking of refugees from Myanmar. 

Human rights groups immediately welcomed the acquittal on Tuesday but said the case should never have been brought in the first place.

Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian were facing up to seven years in prison over a report published on their online news website "Phuketwan" saying military forces accepted money to assist or turn a blind eye to the trafficking of refugees from Myanmar by sea.

They were charged with criminal defamation and offences under the draconian Computer Crimes Act.

People & Power - Outcast: Adrift with Burma's Rohingya

"This is a fantastic day for us, to be free of the weight of this charge," Morison said outside the court, on the island of Phuket. "I think it's an important result for Thai media and for the media in general."

The contested report on the Phuketwan website was excerpted from an extensive story published by the Reuters news agency in July 2013. The Reuters story was part of a series that won the news agency the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting.

The case had drawn widespread criticism from human rights and press freedom groups around the world.

"The acquittal of these two journalists is a positive decision, but the fact is that they should never have had to stand trial in the first place," said Josef Benedict, the regional representative for Amnesty International.

"Thai authorities have again shown their disregard for freedom of expression by pursuing this case." 

The case came to trial following the discovery in May of dozens of bodies buried at several jungle camps on the Thai-Malaysian border where traffickers held refugees and migrants as prisoners.

Many of the refugees were ethnic Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar who face persecution at home.

In many cases, refugees and migrants pay to be smuggled by ship, but are then detained by traffickers in Thailand who hold them until their families pay ransoms.

Source: Associated Press