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Thai court finds Andy Hall guilty of defamation

Andy Hall poses with supporters ahead of a Thai court verdict that found him guilty of defaming Natural Fruit Co Ltd, Thailand's biggest producer of canned pineapples. (Photo: MWRN)

A Thai court has found Andy Hall, a prominent migrant rights defender based in Thailand, guilty of defamation in a closely watched case that will likely have a wide-reaching impact on efforts to monitor mistreatment of foreign workers in the Kingdom.

Hall, who was sentenced to four years in prison and a 150,000 baht (US$4,300) fine, faced up to seven years in jail for accusing Natural Fruit Co Ltd, Thailand’s biggest producer of canned pineapples, of abusing the rights of migrant workers from Burma.

According to Finnwatch, a Finland-based rights group that produced a report on the company’s practices that included information provided by Hall, the prison sentence has been suspended for two years. The group also said that Hall would appeal the verdict.

Natural Fruit denies the allegations made in the Finnwatch report, “Cheap Has a High Price”. The company filed two criminal and two civil lawsuits against Hall but did not sue Finnwatch.

”We are shocked by today’s verdict. The report was authored and published by Finnwatch; we take full responsibility for it. Andy has been made a scapegoat in order to stifle other voices that speak out legitimately in support of migrant worker rights,” said Sonja Vartiala, executive director of Finnwatch.

”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,” added Vartiala.

Rights groups say the country’s defamation laws allow politicians, corporations and businessmen to muzzle critics.

“The cases are widely considered an example of judicial harassment by companies and governments and an attempt to silence a human rights defender,” Finnwatch said in a statement released before the verdict.

US-based Human Rights Watch called for Thailand’s criminal defamation laws to be abolished.

“Andy Hall coordinated important research about abuses of workers’ rights in Thailand and he should never have been prosecuted for his actions,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in the statement.

Adams said the court fight has had a “chilling effect” on other activists pressing for workers’ rights in Thailand.

“Prosecuting Andy Hall for his association with independent efforts to document rights abuses raises serious questions about Thailand’s readiness to protect workers’ rights.”

Foreign governments and non-governmental organisations are closely watching the case against Hall as a gauge of how serious Thailand is about addressing exploitation of migrant workers.

Thailand has been at the centre of scores of reports about labour rights violations in its food industries, with migrant workers often the most exploited.

The country has more than 3 million migrant workers, mostly from neighbouring Burma.

Thailand has passed laws to crack down on human trafficking and forced labour, and has stepped up prosecutions.

Here are some details about the case against Hall, including information from a statement issued by Finnwatch:

– Natural Fruit produces canned pineapple and pineapple juice concentrate, and in 2012 supplied juice concentrate to Finnish retailers.

– In 2012, Finnwatch hired Hall as a researcher to coordinate field research in Thailand for a project on social responsibility of products sold in Finnish supermarkets.

– Hall interviewed workers at Natural Fruit, with assistance from translators and news assistants.

– Natural Fruit cited Hall’s name on the report as evidence of him being author and responsible for the report.

– Finnwatch Executive Director Sonja Vartiala told the court in July that Finnwatch was “solely responsible for analysing, writing and publishing online the report, “Cheap Has a High Price”.

– The verdict on Tuesday morning was for a case for criminal defamation and computer crimes, punishable by up to seven years in prison.