Thai Court Convicts, Sentences Labor Activist for Criminal Defamation

The Natural Fruit Co. sued Andy Hall over a survey of workers that was published online.

Migrant rights defender Andy Hall speaks to reporters at the Bangkok South Criminal Court after he was convicted of criminally defaming a Thai pineapple processing company, Sept. 20, 2016.

A veteran campaigner for migrant-worker rights in Thailand said Tuesday he would appeal his conviction by a Bangkok court on charges that he criminally defamed a Thai pineapple processing company through an online report alleging workplace violations at its factory.

The Bangkok South Criminal Court on Tuesday sentenced labor activist Briton Andy Hall to three years in prison and fined him 150,000 baht [U.S. $4,316], after finding him guilty of defaming the Natural Fruit Co. and violating Thailand’s Computer Crimes Act.

“I/my legal team will appeal today’s decision in line with Thai justice system. Still fully confident our team/I will receive justice in end,” Hall said via Twitter.

The firm sued Hall for defamation over the online publication of a survey that he had helped put together. For the survey, he interviewed workers at the firm’s plant in southern Thailand about labor conditions at the factory, which employs 800 people who are mostly from Myanmar.

The court handed him a four-year sentence, but reduced it to a three-year sentence along with the stipulation that he could begin serving his term in two years, his lawyer said.

“I respect the court’s decision, but am rather shocked and confused with the verdict [that] I was guilty of defamation [under] the Computer Crimes Act,” Hall told reporters outside the courthouse.

‘Just involved in research’

Hall undertook the research for Finnwatch, and Tuesday reiterated that he was merely relaying the information he had collected for the Finland-based NGO that advocates global corporate responsibility. In 2013, Finnwatch posted its report on the internet based on Hall’s work.

“In fact, I did not put the data online myself. I was just involved in research for report,” Hall said.

According to the survey, workers at the plant in Prachuap Khiri Khan province complained that Natural Fruit violated Thai labor law through paying them salaries that were below minimum wage, not giving them sick and holiday leave, and employing children, among other allegations.

In its findings, the court noted that Hall failed to provide evidence that he had interviewed employees at the factory by entering tape recordings of those conversations into the court’s record.

Wirach Piyapornphaiboon, the company’s owner and president, said the court had vindicated the Natural Fruit Co. through its verdict against Hall.

“This is proof that we … did not do that [violate labor rights].  Today, I am thankful to the court for justice,” he told reporters.

“The court proved that he violated my rights, and, no matter who you are, you will not stand above Thailand’s sovereignty,” Wirach said, adding that his company had lost 100 million baht (U.S. $2.8 million) in revenue as a result of publicity around the Finnwatch survey.

‘A distinctly chilling effect’

The court’s decision, however, represents a blow to the rights of more than 3 million migrants who work in Thailand, representatives of Finnwatch and international human rights organizations said.

“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,” Finnwatch Executive Director Sonja Vartiala said.

“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,” she added.

The U.N.’s human rights office for Southeast Asia also weighed in about Tuesday’s verdict.

“Just a day after world leaders committed to a landmark U.N. declaration to ‘strengthen the positive contributions made by migrants to economic and social development in their host countries,’ this court decision is very disturbing,” said Laurent Meillan, the acting regional representative of the Office for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.

“Instead of prosecuting Mr. Hall, it would have been more appropriate to conduct an independent and thorough investigation into the serious allegations raised in the Finnwatch report.”

Earlier this week, U.S.-based Human Rights Watch issued a statement voicing concern about Hall’s trial.

“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 a statement.

“Whatever the verdict, the long and intensive court fight has had a distinctly chilling effect on other activists pressing for the protection of workers’ rights in Thai companies, many of which export their products to foreign consumers.”

Reported by Nontarat Phaicharoen for BenarNews