Andy Hall: Thai court finds UK activist guilty of defamation

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Andy Hall said he was pleased his case had brought international attention to labour conditions

A UK activist who campaigned for the rights of migrant workers in Thailand's fruit industry has been found guilty of defamation and computer crimes.

Andy Hall, from Lincolnshire, was given a three-year suspended jail term and fined 150,000 baht ($4,300; £3,300).

Hall had contributed to a report by a Finnish watchdog, Finnwatch, in 2013 alleging the Natural Fruit Company mistreated its workers.

Finnwatch said it was "shocked" by the verdict.

"Andy has been made a scapegoat in order to stifle other voices that speak out legitimately in support of migrant worker rights," said executive director Sonja Vartiala.

"This is a sad day for freedom of expression in Thailand. We fear that many other human rights defenders and victims of company abuse will be scared to silence by this ruling."

Speaking to the BBC before he went into court, Hall said it would be incredibly unjust if he was convicted, but that he was grateful for the international attention the case had brought to migrant rights in Thailand.

Hall's sentence was suspended for two years, meaning he will not go to jail. Because the report was published online in Thailand, he was also found guilty of violating the Computer Crimes Act.

A spokesman for the British embassy in Bangkok said they would be raising the matter with the Thai authorities.

Analysis: Jonah Fisher, BBC News, Bangkok

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Andy Hall has been supported by both Thais and migrant workers in Thailand

This verdict will send a shiver through Thailand's already nervous human rights community.

By their very nature human rights, and in this case labour rights reports, rely on anonymous testimony. Vulnerable people usually don't want to risk their already fragile lives and livelihoods.

So in court Andy Hall was repeatedly asked to prove his allegations of low wages, and dire conditions against the pineapple processing giant. Despite bringing his research notes, photos and several witnesses to court it wasn't enough.

In their summing up the judges gave weight to Natural Fruit's evidence that government inspectors had regularly visited the factory and found no serious issues.

Andy Hall's escaped jail, but for those who care about freedom of expression in Thailand this was a sad day.

The Finnwatch report - Cheap has a High Price - included allegations that migrant workers were being paid wages below the legal minimum, working long hours at factories and had had their passports illegally confiscated.

Natural Fruit, one of Thailand's biggest pineapple producers, denied all the allegations and brought charges against Hall, who was living in Thailand at the time.

Owner Wirat Piyapornpaiboon had said the report caused damage to him and his company.

Thailand has grown to become one of the world's biggest food producers, but is repeatedly criticised for the treatment of migrant workers.

The frequent use of the criminal defamation law in Thailand to silence critics has been condemned by human rights groups.

The US-based Human Rights Watch said Hall had co-ordinated "important research" and that prosecuting him raised "serious questions about Thailand's readiness to protect workers' rights".

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