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British researcher Andy Hall returned to court in Thailand on Wednesday to hear the fourth charge brought against him by Natural Fruit, a Thai pineapple processing company.
Hall, who lives in Rangoon, was charged with criminal defamation for revealing labour abuses allegedly committed by the company during an Al Jazeera video report produced in the former Burmese capital.
After being escorted by police to the Prakanong public prosecutor’s office in Bangkok, Hall was arraigned and taken into custody, but was released on bail after two hours in a detention cell. Hall told DVB from the prosecutor’s office that no certified translator was available to assist the hearing.
His British passport was seized by Thai authorities and he is not allowed to leave the country until the case has been resolved through trial, which he estimates could take several years given the nature of the charges.
As requested by Hall, two of Thailand’s leading food-processing associations — the Thai Frozen Foods Association and Thai Tuna Industry Association — paid the 50,000 baht (US$1,500) bail on his behalf. Hall appealed for the groups’ assistance, “to send a message to the international community that this is just one company that’s going the wrong way”.
A total of four charges have now been brought against Hall, who has long been a vocal advocate for migrants’ rights in Thailand. He has worked in Southeast Asia for about ten years as a researcher and activist.
In 2013, Hall served as a lead researcher for a report published by Finnwatch, a non-governmental organisation that campaigns for corporate responsibility. The report examined three Thai companies that were found to have committed various abuses against migrant labourers, including the employment of trafficked workers, unlawfully low pay and extremely unsafe working conditions.
Of the three companies investigated — Natural Fruit, Thai Union Manufacturing and Unicord — Natural Fruit was the only one to pursue legal action against Hall. Over the course of the past year, they have hit him with two counts of criminal and one count of civil defamation, claiming damages of $10 million. He also faces an additional charge of violating Thailand’s controversial Computer Crimes Act.
A lawyer representing Natural Fruit told DVB in May that the company refutes all allegations made by Finnwatch and plans to proceed with the case as planned.
Thailand has come under enormous international pressure over migrant labour issues in recent months, particularly in food-processing industries. The US State Department is due to release an annual assessment on Friday that could result in sanctions; for the past four years, Thailand has idled on a “watchlist”, which means that exemptions to a downgrade in the rankings have all been exhausted.
Downgrade to a “Tier 3” ranking would automatically subject the country to financial restrictions affecting commerce and non-humanitarian programmes supported by the US.
Thailand is struggling to quickly remedy its public image after a months-long political stalemate ended with a military coup on 22 May. The new ruling junta, known as the National Council for Peace and Order, has spent several days denying a systemic “crackdown” on undocumented migrants from Burma, Cambodia and Laos.