British activist’s defamation trial begins in Bangkok

British activist Andy Hall appeared in a Thai court on 2 September to face defamation charges based on his research about Burmese migrant labour. He could serve more than seven years in jail if convicted. (PHOTO: Feliz Solomon/DVB)
A potentially precedent-setting trial began on Tuesday in Bangkok, as British activist Andy Hall faced the first of four libel charges against him for his research about a Thai company’s alleged abuse of migrant labourers.

Hall is being sued by Natural Fruit, a pineapple processing company based in Thonburi, Bangkok province. The trial, which will continue until 10 September, involves statements he made during an Al Jazeera video report that went live in June 2013. Hall faces a total of at least seven years in prison for related charges.

The comments made to Al Jazeera, over which he faces a one-year prison sentence, implicate the company in unlawfully low wages and employment of underage workers. Natural Fruit employs hundreds of mostly Burmese migrants, who make up a significant portion of Thailand’s low-skill workforce and are widely regarded as vulnerable to labour abuse.

Natural Fruit’s vice-president Kachin Komneyawanich, the plaintiff in the case, claims that the allegations were completely fabricated, and that the company’s revenues have dropped by a large margin since the content was published.

Hall’s is a unique and convoluted case, which has been lambasted by rights defenders and industry figures alike, claiming that he is being targeted to demonstrate that some issues and industries are off limits. The total of four charges – which include criminal defamation, violation of Thailand’s controversial Computer Crimes Act (CCA) and a civil defamation suit seeking damages of US$10 million – all trace back to research conducted for a European accountability watchdog, Finnwatch.
“What I did was in the public interest and what I did was for the benefit of migrant workers”

Finnwatch contracted Hall, who at the time was associate researcher at Bangkok’s Mahidol University, to investigate three Thai food processing companies that supply European markets: Thai Union Manufacturing, Unicord and Natural Fruit. The group published the findings in 2013, which were based largely on site visits and interviews with employees.

The damning report, titled Cheap Has a High Price, cited worker testimony claiming abuses including child labour, confiscation of passports, low wages and severely unsafe conditions. The allegations were taken seriously by some European retailers and ultimately resulted in several supplier contract renegotiations.

Natural Fruit, however, dismissed the findings entirely. The company initially chose to pursue legal action under the CCA, enacted in 2007, which broadly criminalises all “forged computer data or false computer data”. While the law is generally thought to have been drafted to prevent physical or proprietary damage to computer systems, research by an independent Thai legal organisation, iLaw, shows that fraud and defamation cases are its most common application.

Hall had since moved to Rangoon, Burma’s former capital, where he worked as a labour rights consultant for an EU-backed initiative. In mid-2013, as his case began to garner attention abroad, he was contacted for an interview about his work in Thailand.

Former Al Jazeera correspondent Wayne Hay met with Hall in Rangoon, and he spoke candidly about his work with Finnwatch and the impending charges. Mostly, though, he spoke about what workers told him during the interviews.

“All of the workers said to me that working there was like hell,” Hall said in the clip, which is still viewable on YouTube and was played back several times to the court on Tuesday. This line drew particular ire from Natural Fruit, whose counsel seemed fixated on the connotations of the word “hell”. The defense maintains that the statement was based on employee testimony and that Hall had no intent to harm the company.

“I think it’s very difficult to prove that I had a malicious intent toward this company,” said Hall, speaking before the hearing. “What I did was in the public interest and what I did was for the benefit of migrant workers.”

Shortly after it aired, and after Hall had already been charged by Natural Fruit for his Finnwatch research, the company announced that they would charge him again. Hall was arraigned and detained on 18 June this year, and was released on bail paid by the Thai Frozen Foods Association and Thai Tuna Industry Association, the country’s two biggest food industry organisations.

There has to date been no indication that either Wayne Hay or Al Jazeera will face charges, harking back to another defamation case in Thailand against employees of an online newspaper, Phuketwan, who are being sued by the Royal Thai Navy for quoting content published by Reuters. In that case, the defendants will face CCA charges in March 2015, and could also be jailed for up to seven years. London-based Reuters has not been charged, and has since received a Pulitzer Prize for the content in question.

In both of these cases, the defendants have long track records of reporting on abuses committed against migrants and refugees in Thailand, leading many to believe that they are being punished for their investigations into sensitive issues like human trafficking and exploitative labour.

“I think I’m being targeted, I think I’m being harassed,” Hall said on Tuesday as he entered the courtroom. In the lead-up to the case, multiple campaigns were launched in his defense, collectively representing hundreds of thousands of individuals asking the Thai government and relevant industry lobbies to push for an acquittal. So many supporters appeared at Tuesday’s hearing that it had to be moved to a larger room to accommodate the crowd, which included diplomats from Australia, Finland and the UK, representatives of Finnwatch and the International Labour Organization, and a throng of more than 20 migrant workers.

A verdict is expected on 10 September, and his next trial will commence on the 15th, which is expected to take much longer. Thai authorities have confiscated his passport, and he is currently in Thailand on a criminal visa, which binds him to stay in-country throughout the proceedings. Hall said that he is “very confident” that he’ll see justice, and will remain determined to fight all of the charges, which could ultimately take years.

“For someone like me, who has given ten years of my life to these issues, I can’t stop. It’s my life, it’s what I do, I’m not going to turn my back, I’m not going to walk away,” he said.

By FELIZ SOLOMON (DVB)

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