Yesterday, the Bangkok South Criminal Court yet again postponed the hearing in the on-going criminal suit filed by tinned pineapple and juice producer Natural Fruit against labour rights activist Andy Hall. The next court hearing is scheduled to take place on 23 December 2013. The company sued Hall for defamation, which is a criminal offence in Thailand, and violations of the Computer Crimes Act in February 2013, after the release of a report he co-authored for the Finnish rights group Finnwatch. If found guilty, he could face up to seven years in prison and damages of $10m.
The report – Cheap has a high price: Responsibility problems relating to international private label products and food production in Thailand – alleges that a pineapple canning factory operated by Natural Fruit employed children as young as 14, confiscated migrant workers‘ documents and severely underpaid them. The factory management is accused of discriminating against and abusing migrant workers, who made up most of the workforce and were largely smuggled into the country from neighbouring Burma (Myanmar).
In September 2013, the fruit giant slapped Hall with another criminal defamation lawsuit over the statements he made in video interviews for Finnwatch and Al Jazeera news network. He was informed about the new charges through the UK Embassy in Bangkok and was requested to attend Bang Na Police Station, where he was reportedly almost “tricked into“ signing a confession that allegations he made against the company were not true.
“When I went into the police station I was provided with a rather unreliable translator. All the communications were in Thai as was the piece of paper they were trying to make me sign, without explaining what it actually said,” Hall, who has worked on labour rights in Thailand and Burma for over a decade, told Asian Correspondent.
He has since filed a complaint with the Royal Thai Police office, alleging malfeasance at the Bang Na Police Station and has informed the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand of the defamation suits filed against him by the pineapple company.
The lawsuits are currently held up as the plaintiff’s lawyers have been unable to “legally serve” the necessary documents to the activist, despite his Bangkok location.
‘Chilling effect’ on human rights defenders
On 26 April 2013, five UN Special Rapporteurs sent out an appeal to the Thai Government, expressing concern that the criminal charges against Hall “may be the result of his legitimate and peaceful actions gathering and publishing evidence of facts which, if accurate, would amount to serious human rights violations that warrant investigation by the authorities without delay“. The communication went on to assert that the charges may have a “chilling effect“ on other activists working on exposing human rights abuses perpetrated by business enterprises in the country.
The Permanent Mission of Thailand to Geneva responded to the communication on 6 May 2013, stating that the criminal charges brought against the Briton are subject to the Thai judicial system, giving Natural Fruit the right to sue the activist and Hall the right to defend himself.
The human rights defender maintains the lawsuits are politically motivated and are aimed at silencing him and others like him.
“The authorities are trying to say that this is a private case but it is politically motivated. I never believed it was only about this case and Natural Fruit. I don’t think there is any attempt to put me in prison, it is more about shutting me up and getting me out of the country,” he said.
Natural Fruit – owned and operated by the siblings of Thai Democrat Party General Secretary, Chalermchai Sri-on – did not provide a comment, despite numerous requests. In a statement made previouly to Reuters the company said the accusations of child labour, unsafe working conditions and unlawfully low wages are false, and have caused it significant loss of reputation.
Freedom of speech versus defamation
Over the years, freedom of expression watchdogs like ARTICLE 19, have raised concerns over the use of defamation laws in Thailand by politicians and corporations to muzzle activists and journalists.
In its latest statement about the suits brought by Natural Fruit, Human Rights Watch urged the authorities to decriminalise defamation and underlined that “freedom to investigate abuses by corporations is critical to ensure compliance and accountability under Thai law and human rights standards.”
Brad Adams, Asia director at the organization, called on businesses sourcing from Thailand to voice concerns over Hall’s charges. “International companies sourcing from Thailand should raise concerns with the government that using criminal charges to silence rights critics could adversely affect the overall reputation of Thailand’s major export sectors. The Thai government should welcome efforts to protect worker’s rights, not penalize them,” he said.
Hall stands by his research and is adamant he will not be applying for bail. “I won’t apply for bail. I am ready to sit in detention pending trial for the frivolous claims filed by Natural Fruit,” he said ahead of the hearing.
You can stay up to date with developments in Andy Hall’s cases on his blog