British activist convicted in Thai defamation trial

Andy Hall has seen a series of legal actions for contributing to a 2013 report on a Natural Fruit factory in the south of the country, alleging poor working conditions, low wages and child labour.

BANGKOK // A British activist was found guilty of criminal defamation on Tuesday and given a suspended jail sentence over a report alleging abuses in Thailand’s lucrative fruit industry – a verdict the UN described as “very disturbing”.

Andy Hall, who lives in Thailand, has seen a series of legal actions for contributing to a 2013 report on a Natural Fruit factory in the south of the country, alleging poor working conditions, low wages and child labour.

On Tuesday, he was found guilty of defamation and breaching computer crime laws in a private prosecution filed by Natural Fruit.

Hall, 36, was given a three-year suspended sentence and fined 150,000 baht (Dh115,800), his lawyer Nakhon Chomphuchat said.

Rights groups say criminal defamation and computer misuse laws are routinely used to stifle investigative work in Thailand.

The country’s reputation as a major supplier to global food chains has been tarnished by persistent allegations of labour abuses, especially against cheap and vulnerable migrant workers.

Both Natural Fruit, a private company and major supplier to the European drink market, and Thai prosecutors have brought separate actions against Hall.

The contentious report – “Cheap Has a High Price” – was published by the Finnish civil rights group Finnwatch.

It heaped pressure on Thailand’s food industry.

The United Nations’ Human Rights Office for South-east Asia said the ruling was “very disturbing”.

“It would have been more appropriate to conduct an independent and thorough investigation into the serious allegations raised in the Finnwatch report,” acting regional representative Laurent Meillan said.

Western companies have faced increased pressure to vet their supply chains and ensure their Thai exports are slavery-free.

But scandals keep emerging, while those who document abuses often face a backlash.

Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said international companies should “take a real hard look at whether they want to source anything from Thailand going forward” following the ruling.

Natural Fruit has denied the allegations in the report and has also launched a civil case seeking $10 million (Dh36.7m) in damages.

Hall, who said he will appeal the verdict, stands by his research and has accused the company of trying to detract from the report’s findings.

Speaking after Tuesday’s trial, Hall said the verdict “shows people are not free or at liberty to do this kind of research”.

“There’s a huge problem with human trafficking in Thailand. There’s a huge problem with labour exploitation,” added the activist, who in recent years has also drawn attention to abuses in Thailand’s shady fishing and poultry sectors.

The president of Natural Fruit was in unforgiving mood after the ruling.

“No foreigner should think they have power above Thai sovereignty,” said Wirat Piyapornpaiboon.

* Agence France-Presse

Published: September 20, 2016 04:00 AM

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