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Thai court orders migrant rights activist Andy Hall to pay over $300,000

British rights activist Andy Hall arrived at a court to surrender himself into custody, facing criminal defamation and computer crimes charges, in Bangkok, Thailand, on 13 January 2016. (Photo: Reuters)

A court in Thailand on Monday ordered a migrant workers advocate to pay 10 million baht ($321,000) in damages to a Thai fruit company in the latest round of a long-running legal battle between the two parties.

Natural Fruit Company Ltd. sought legal action against Andy Hall after the 2013 publication of an interview he gave to Al Jazeera about a report, Cheap has a high price,” which alleged human rights violations committed against migrant workers in the company’s pineapple processing factories.

The report — published by Finnwatch, rather than Hall individually — was based on interviews provided by migrant workers, many of them Burmese, who had worked for Natural Fruit Ltd. The report alleged that migrant workers were abused, paid below the minimum wage and had their passports confiscated by company managers.

Natural Fruit has targeted the UK national rather than Finnwatch, a corporate social responsibility watchdog, in the case.

Following news of Monday’s verdict, Finnwatch’s Executive Director Sonja Vartiala blasted the Thai justice system and called the outcome “appalling.”

“The Thai justice system continues to be used to swamp human rights defenders with endless court cases. It’s an effective way to prevent all public criticism towards companies,” Vartiala said in a press release.

The Prakanong Court, in southern Thailand, first dismissed the civil case citing a lack of jurisdiction. Natural Fruit successfully appealed in 2017 and the court was ordered to accept jurisdiction and allow the case to proceed.

Reacting to the verdict on social media, Hall said he would immediately launch an appeal.

“This verdict is a major setback for rights of human rights defenders, migrant workers, labour/migration activists and researchers everywhere and casts a dark shadow over recent positive progress the Thai government and Thai industry has made to improve migrant worker conditions,” he said on Facebook.

Natural Fruit has filed a total of four cases against Hall, including a defamation suit under the country’s Criminal Code. All of the charges combined carry a maximum penalty of seven years’ imprisonment.

The company’s decision to pursue the cases against an individual rather than Finnwatch had the hallmarks of a personal grudge. Headed by Wirat Piyapornpaiboon, the brother of a former Thai labour minister, Natural Fruit has the pool of resources needed to pursue the Hall-related cases to the limits of the Thai legal system.

Hall is no stranger to the law in Thailand, having worked with the Migrant Workers Rights Network on a number of high-profile cases, including the two Burmese men sentenced to death over the September 2014 killings of two British backpackers on Koh Tao, a popular party island.

Facing prosecution on a separate defamation charge brought by the poultry company Thammakaset Company Limited, he left Thailand in late 2016.

Natural Fruit did not return an emailed request for comment, and was unreachable by phone on Monday.