Guardian UK : Andy Hall’s legal battle to defend migrant workers in Thailand

Human rights in Thailand: Andy Hall’s legal battle to defend migrant workers

The British human rights defender is being prosecuted for defamation by a fruit company in Thailand. NGOs warn of the chilling effect on grassroots activism

Andy Hall arrives at court in Bangkok.
Andy Hall is being prosecuted for criminal defamation by Natural Fruit Company in Thailand. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Andy Hall is waiting for his meditation class to begin in a Bangkok hospital as we talk over Skype, and our conversation is occasionally interrupted by fast-talking Thai voices. Hall answers my questions calmly. The human rights defender doesn’t seem like a man carrying the weight of multiple prosecutions and the possibility of seven years in a Thai prison.

But this week Hall was officially indicted by the Thai court on criminal defamation and computer crimes charges, relating to a report that alleged abuses against migrant workers at a pineapple processing factory. A lengthy legal drama that’s gone on for three years, the next step will be the trail on 19 May.

Back in 2012, Hall was working as a freelance research coordinator for Finnish NGO Finnwatch, which was analysing working conditions in Finnish supply chains. Its 2013 report, Cheap Has a High Price, alleged human rights violations and illegal activities by Natural Fruit Company, a pineapple processing plant in Prachuap Khiri Khan province in southern Thailand. The report alleged that there were dangerous working conditions in the factory, illegally low wages and discriminatory treatment against migrant workers. Hall had interviewed employees at the company and the report drew on his research. Natural Fruit vigorously denied all allegations, and within a fortnight of the report being published, the company had decided to prosecute Hall. By November 2014, Hall faced two criminal defamation charges and two civil defamation actions. If found guilty he could be imprisoned for seven years and fined 400m Thai baht (£7m).

“When I got that email saying that I’d been prosecuted, my heart just missed a beat – I thought, what did I do wrong?” Hall says. “I’ve committed my life to helping migrant workers who were abused in Thailand. I’ve never believed that I sacrificed my life, because I chose to do it. So why would somebody come after me with all these criminal cases?”

Migrant workers make up at least 10% of the workforce in Thailand (more than 80% of whom are from neighbouring Myanmar), and continue to suffer from alleged human rights abuses: the fishing industry was condemned last year for its treatment of migrant workers. Yet labour laws provide little protection for migrants – they are “kind of invisible”, Hall says. “Migrants are in such a terrible situation, and I found myself in a position to speak out for them.”

Andy Hall receiving flowers outside the Bangkok South Criminal Court in January 2016.
Andy Hall receiving flowers outside the Bangkok South Criminal Court in January 2016. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Hall has committed his working life to defending labour rights. The 36-year-old from Spalding, Lincolnshire, graduated with a first class degree in law from UCL, and began a PhD in corporate social responsibility in Melbourne and Cardiff, before travelling through northern Thailand where he started helping migrant workers who had been left disabled from work accidents.

Over the past decade he’s earned a reputation as a prominent defender of migrant workers’ rights, working as an adviser to the Myanmar government – he even describes Aung San Suu Kyi as a second mother. He exudes confidence and intelligence, but the past few years of his life have been dominated by what he, and global human rights organisations, believe to be harassment.

Staff at Finnwatch were astonished that Natural Fruit was prosecuting Hall instead of the NGO. Director Sonja Vartiala says: “If Natural Fruit wanted to go after the one who was responsible for the publication they should have sued us.”

Finnwatch doesn’t have a legal team to look through reports to prevent it getting sued, but it does have an ethical code of conduct, according to Vartiala. The NGO always invites companies to comment on the findings; it tries to meet them and have a dialogue to give them a voice. Thai Union and Unicord, the two other companies that were investigated in the report, did this – Thai Union would even go on to pay Hall’s 300,000 baht (£6,000) bail surety costs – but Natural Fruit “has never given any comments to the original report before or after it was published, although it was given several opportunities to do so”, says Vartiala.

Instead, Natural Fruit brought a criminal lawsuit against a private individual. Why? That’s a question that hangs over Hall. The Guardian asked Natural Fruit for a comment but it did not respond.

Hall’s case brings into focus larger issues for human rights defenders in Thailand and south-east Asia. He believes it is a way to silence him and incite fear in other activists. “It makes people, especially Thai people, fear speaking out,” Hall says. “I’ve got white skin, I’ve got embassies, I’ve got media support, but they’re still doing it to me. How would your average activist ever dare to speak up?”

This sentiment has been echoed by global human rights organisations. Bobbie Sta. Maria, the south-east Asia researcher and representative at Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, says it could lead to “self-censorship to avoid unnecessary prosecution like this, which is a valid reaction”.

Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director of Human Rights Watch, agrees: “There is certainly a chilling effect on people doing research in the supply chains in Thailand, and I think that affects not only foreigners, but Thai NGOs as well.”

Thai fishing industry, migrant workers from Myanmar and Cambodia in Thailand.
The Thai fishing industry, which employs migrant workers from Myanmar and Cambodia, has been accused of illegal fishing and the abuse of workers. Photograph: Rungroj Yongrit/EPA

Thailand has been in a human rights crisis since the military coup in 2014, according to Human Rights Watch. The ruling junta has imposed restrictions, including widespread censorship and banning public gatherings of more than five people, making it a dangerous place for grassroots activism. Hall’s case, says Robertson, shows “the systematic abuse of criminal defamation law in Thailand to try and silence activists and grassroots organisations from revealing inconvenient truths”.

Last year, an Australian and a Thai journalist were taken to court on criminal defamation charges for reporting Thai naval officers’ alleged involvement in human trafficking on independent news site Phuketwan. The case related to a 41-word paragraph from a Reuters news agency report on Rohingya refugees that was simply reposted on their site. They faced up to seven years in prison and substantial fines, but were acquitted in September.

The outcome was seen as a success for media freedom in the region, but Robertson says that while the trial was going on the news site shut down. “They were acquitted on criminal defamation charges, but their voice has been silenced as a news organisation,” he says. “There is that kind of backhanded harassment: dragging them through judicial processes that’ll take years and wear them down.”

And in December 2015, a 15-year-old Thai girl was threatened with legal actionby a mining company after she was featured on the Thai Public Broadcasting Service talking about how the gold mine had negatively affected her community.

“It just shows that if you challenge power in south-east Asia you better be prepared to pay a price,” says Robertson.

For some, that price is fatally high: “It’s not just prosecution, but even threats on your personal safety,” adds Sta. Maria.

A 2014 report from Global Witness found that 16 Thai environmentalists were murdered between 2002 and 2013, the second highest total in Asia behind the Philippines. Human Rights Watch recorded more than 30 deaths of human rights activists and environmentalists in that time. Yet the police have charged suspects in less than 20% of these cases.

Small community activists are particularly vulnerable. Human rights defender Por Cha Lee Rakchongcharoen, from Kaengkrachan National Park in Petchaburi, who was involved in a lawsuit against park officials was reportedly arrested and later released in April 2014, but his whereabouts are currently unknown. Even more unsettling is that February 11 will mark the first anniversary of the murder of Chai Bunthonglek, who campaigned for land ownership for the Khlong Sai Pattana community in Surat Thani province. He is the fourth activist from that community to be killed in the past five years. These are such significant issues that Human Rights Watch has called on the Thai government to “end its apathy toward deadly attacks against human rights defenders. Government leaders should recognise that these killings over time weigh heavily on global public perceptions of Thailand as a rights-respecting country.”

British rights activist Andy Hall
Halls says the attention his case has brought to the issue of migrant rights is a silver lining on a very dark cloud. Photograph: Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters

Hall has not faced threats on his life for his activism but his case has put human rights in Thailand into the global spotlight. “How he’s treated will have an impact on investigations into supply chains and serious allegations of migrant workers abuse that continues to happen in Thailand,” says Robertson. “These problems are real, and Hall is just pulling back the cover in one company, and for that his entire life is being overturned.”

But despite the disruption to his life, Hall is stoical about what he is going through. “There are so many terrible things that happen, so you have to put it in context. It’s a lot of stress and inconvenience, but compared with what other people face, it’s not that bad.”

Hall hopes his case will highlight the dangerous realities for activists in the region. “The level of attention I’ve managed to bring through this prosecution to the issue of migrant rights in Thailand and the vulnerability of activists is really a silver lining on a dark cloud.”

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Natural Fruit vs. Andy Hall 2nd 12-day criminal trial to commence May 19 2016

ASIA & PACIFIC

Thailand Wants to Throw This British Rights Activist in Jail for Fighting Exploitation

By Charles Parkinson

January 18, 2016 | 7:55 pm

 

“How can they indict me for computer crimes when I didn’t even put the report on the internet?” British human rights activist Andy Hall told VICE News on Sunday.

On Monday, Hall was indicted by a Bangkok court on charges of criminal defamation and computer crimes relating to a report released three years ago exposing severe working conditions in Thai factories. Observers say this case highlights the growing repression of civil society representatives under Thailand’s military government.

Hall, who has spent more than a decade working on migrant workers’ rights in both Thailand and Burma, now faces up to seven years in jail if found guilty at a 12-day trial at Bangkok South Criminal Court starting on May 19 and finishing July 27.

The charges stem from a document released by Finnish NGO Finnwatch in January 2013, which focused on factories run by tuna companies Unicord and Thai Union Manufacturing, and pineapple processing firm Natural Fruit.

For the compilation of the report, Hall was contracted by Finnwatch to lead a team of interviewers who gathered testimony from factory workers about the conditions they were working under.

Entitled Cheap Has a High Price, the report was only published in Finnish, with an executive summary made available in English. In it, Finnwatch highlighted exploitative working conditions in the factories, all of which were major suppliers to Finnish retailers.

Monday’s court hearing took five hours and included a lot of wrangling over who his translator would be because the court had brought a Burmese translator who didn’t speak enough English. While the court initially refused to switch, Hall has now been assigned a translator who worked with him on previous cases.

“It’s really scary how this happens in the Thai court system every day,” he told VICE News after the hearing, adding that a serious point of contention over the recent conviction of two Burmese men for the murder of a pair of British backpackers on the Thai island of Koh Tao was the lack of adequate translation services they were provided throughout the proceedings.

Hall pleaded not guilty to all of the charges and the nine days of defense he has been granted in May’s trial came after he had initially requested 12 days to present all of his witnesses and evidence.

“I am confident that at the end of the day I am going to win all of these cases, all I did was do research and I reported what the migrants said,” Hall said on Sunday.

According to Finnwatch Executive Director Sonja Vartiala, the report did not call on Finnish companies to stop doing business with any of the three companies, but rather to encourage them to improve conditions for their workers.

In response, major Finnish retailer S Group sent a delegation to Thailand to meet with representatives of the factories, during which they called on Natural Fruit to introduce third-party oversight of working conditions at the factory.

‘Under the military junta, repression of political activities has reached levels unseen in several decades in Thailand’

“Natural Fruit refused and that’s why they’ve lost a lot of customers in the European Union (EU),” Vartiala told VICE News. “So if there has been damage to their business, they have caused it to themselves.”

While Hall was not responsible for writing or publishing the report itself, less than a month after its it was released, Natural Fruit filed charges against him, which have been widely condemned as judicial harassment intended to stifle his work.

Natural Fruit has since filed charges against Hall in three other cases. Those include a criminal defamation case relating to an interview Hall gave to Al Jazeera in June 2013 about the findings of the report, for which Natural Fruit and Thailand’s Attorney General have been granted leave to file further appeals despite the Thai Appeals Court dismissing the case in September 2015.

Natural Fruit has also filed two civil defamation claims against Hall, demanding 400 million Thai baht ($11 million) in damages over the findings of the report.

According to Vartiala, Natural Fruit has never contacted Finnwatch about the report or sought to press charges against the NGO or anyone who held genuine responsibility for the study.

A spokesperson for Natural Fruit could not be reached by VICE News prior to the publication of this article.

Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division Deputy Director Phil Robertson said the targeting of Hall reflects the exacerbation he has caused among powerful circles through his successful efforts to shine a light on pervasive labor rights violations.

Thailand’s agriculture and manufacturing sectors rely heavily on migrant labor, with some migrants living in conditions that amount to modern day slavery. Up to 3 million Burmese migrant workers live in the country, making them a key focus of Hall’s work.

“He’s consistently stood up for the rights of migrant workers in Thailand and that has earned him plenty of enemies among political and business elites who are not amused at people examining the way workers are treated in their supply chain,” Robertson told VICE News.

‘If I was Thai or if I was Burmese, they would have assassinated me, that’s just how it works in Thailand’

The charges filed against Hall are just the latest example of activists in Thailand facing judicial harassment, with observers saying the situation for human rights defenders and the press has deteriorated markedly since the military took power following a coup in 2014.

“Under the military junta, repression of political activities has reached levels unseen in several decades in Thailand,” said Andrea Giorgetta, director of Asia Desk, Southeast Asia, at the NGO International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).

“The military has harassed and arbitrarily detained scores of junta critics, including activists, students, academics, and media persons,” he told VICE News.

In a recent high-profile case involving a foreigner, Alan Morison, the Australian editor of local independent media outlet Phuketwan, was forced to endure a year-long legal battle to fight charges of criminal defamation based on reporting on the alleged involvement of Thai naval officers in trafficking Burmese Rohingya refugees.

While both Morison and Thai journalist Chutima Sidasathian were eventually acquitted in September 2015, they told the Guardian the pressure of having to face such a case and fear of the seven-year prison sentence they were threatened with had deeply affected their lives.

According to Hall, he has lost two jobs as a result of the charges filed against him, with a teaching contract at Bangkok’s prestigious Mahidol University not renewed after the charges were initially filed, and a job advising the Burmese government for the EU prematurely ended.

Andy Hall (right) with Alan Morison (left) and Chutima Sidasathian (center). (Photo via Andy Hall)

While Morison’s case was resolved relatively quickly, both Vartiala and Robertson suggest the case against Hall is likely to drag on for a number of years more. “That sends a chilling message to other researchers and activists who want to take on the powers that be in Thailand,” said Robertson.

Yet Hall is quick to point out that in many ways he is lucky to only be facing criminal charges. If he were not a British citizen capable of drawing on the support of his own government and whipping up international attention, he says his prospects would likely be far bleaker.

“If I was Thai or if I was Burmese, they would have assassinated me, that’s just how it works in Thailand,” he said.

According to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), at least 30 human rights defenders were victims of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances in Thailand between 2001 and 2014.

In late 2014, two land rights activists in southern Thailand were gunned down within days of each other. Pitan Thongpanang had been at the forefront of a campaign challenging a major mining concession in Nakhon Sri Thammarat Province, while Sumsuk Kokrang had been challenging the legality of a palm oil plantation in Krabi Province. No suspects have ever been caught for the killings.

According to Hall, one of the migrant workers he interviewed for the Finnwatch study, who came forward to corroborate many of the testimonies published in the report and has become a key witness for his defense, has been the target of sustained threats and intimidation.

While the killing and persecution of local rights activists is often met with impunity, Hall’s case has drawn considerable international attention.

Since the charges were first filed against him in 2013, Hall has garnered significant support from international trade union organizations, with the Trades Union Congress (TUC) of England and Wales successfully lobbying the UK Labour Party to raise his case in the British parliament.

Meanwhile, after his case was raised in the European Parliament in October 2015 and drew condemnation from representatives from several countries, European Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management Christos Stylianides agreed to follow the case and attend trial hearings.

According to Vartiala, while Natural Fruit may have set out to silence criticism, they have only drawn more exposure to their mistreatment of workers.

“I don’t think they really knew what they were doing when they started this case, but now everybody knows of them. If you do an internet search for Natural Fruit, the first thing that comes up is this case against Andy,” she said. “Now I think it’s too late for them to take it back, so there is no return any more.”

Meanwhile, while many people have urged Hall to leave the country and escape the charges, he says he sees them as “complimentary” because they demonstrate the work he is doing is having an effect — an effect he says would be undermined if he flees injustice in a way the majority of the workers he seeks to help have no opportunity to do.

“When you face something like this you can’t run away,” he said. “I have to be a voice and I have to be a face for people who are much more exploited than I am.”

Follow Charles Parkinson on Twitter: @charlesparkinsn

ศาลไทยยึดพาสปอร์ตของนักปกป้องสิทธิแรงงานข้ามชาติชาวอังกฤษ อานดี้ ฮอลล์ และสั่งห้ามเดินทาง

UNOFFICIAL THAI TRANSLATION
13 มกราคม 2016 แถลงข่าว

ศาลไทยยึดพาสปอร์ตของนักปกป้องสิทธิแรงงานข้ามชาติชาวอังกฤษ อานดี้ ฮอลล์ และสั่งห้ามเดินทาง
วันนี้ ศาลอาญากรุงเทพใต้ได้ยึดพาสปอร์ตของนักปกป้องสิทธิแรงงานข้ามชาติชาวอังกฤษ อานดี้ ฮอลล์ และออกคำสั่งห้ามไม่ให้เขาเดินทาง หลังจากการยื่นขอประกันตัว การขอประกันตัวนี้ได้ดำเนินการก่อนหน้าที่อานดี้ ฮอลล์ จะถูกศาลแจ้งข้อหาดำเนินคดีอย่างเป็นทางการสัปดาห์หน้าในวันที่ 18 มกราคม ในคดีหมิ่นประมาททางอาญาและอาชญากรรมทางคอมพิวเตอร์ที่บริษัท เนเชอรัล ฟรุต จำกัด เป็นโจทก์ยื่นฟ้องเขา ซึ่งนานาชาติได้ติดตามสังเกตการณ์มาโดยตลอด

วันนี้ อานดี้ ฮอลล์ ได้รับการอนุญาตให้ปล่อยตัวชั่วคราวขณะรอการพิจารณาคดีในศาลตามข้อกล่าวหา แต่ไม่สามารถเดินทางออกนอกประเทศได้จนกว่าศาลจะพิพากษาคดีเสร็จสิ้น ยกเว้นแต่จะได้รับอนุญาตเป็นกรณีๆ ไป สำนักงานตรวจคนเข้าเมืองจะดำเนินการปิดกั้นไม่ให้เขาเดินทางเข้าออกประเทศ ฮอลล์จะยื่นคำร้องขอความช่วยเหลือจากสถานทูตอังกฤษประจำประเทศไทย ในการติดต่อเจ้าหน้าที่ฝ่ายการทูตเพื่อขอพาสปอร์ตคืนจากศาล

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Thai Court Confiscates Passport and Imposes Travel Ban on British Migrant Rights Defender Andy Hall

13 January 2016 MEDIA RELEASE
Thai Court Confiscates Passport and Imposes Travel Ban on British Migrant Rights Defender Andy Hall
The Bangkok South Criminal Court today confiscated the passport of British migrant rights defender Andy Hall and imposed on him a travel ban, following a temporary bail request submission. The bail request was made in advance of Hall’s official indictment next week on 18th January for an internationally monitored criminal defamation and computer crimes case brought against him by Thai pineapple exporter Natural Fruit Company Ltd.

Andy Hall was today granted bail temporary pending trial on the charges but cannot now leave Thailand before the case has been ruled on by the Court, unless permission is granted on a case by case basis. An immigration block will be placed on Hall’s movement in and our of Thailand. Hall will now petition the British Embassy to Thailand for assistance in requesting diplomatic officials to seek the return of his passport from the Court.

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Q&A: Criminal and Civil Prosecutions – Natural Fruit vs. Andy Hall

UPDATED 11 January 2016 Q&A: Criminal and Civil Prosecutions – Natural Fruit vs. Andy Hall

1. What are all the prosecutions about?

Migrant rights defender and researcher Andy Hall worked as a research coordinator for a Finnish NGO Finnwatch in 2012. With assistance from a team of translators and fixers, Andy conducted worker interviews in Thailand. Finnwatch published the interview findings in a report Cheap Has a High Price in January 2013.

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ถามตอบ: คดีอาญาและคดีแพ่ง – บริษัท เนเชอรัล ฟรุต โจทก์ ฟ้อง นายอานดี้ ฮอลล์ จำเลย

UNOFFICIAL THAI TRANSLATION อัพเดท 11 มกราคม 2558

ถามตอบ: คดีอาญาและคดีแพ่ง – บริษัท เนเชอรัล ฟรุต โจทก์ ฟ้อง นายอานดี้ ฮอลล์ จำเลย

1. การฟ้องคดีเหล่านี้มีรายละเอียดอย่างไร?

อานดี้ ฮอลล์ เป็นผู้เชี่ยวชาญและนักวิจัยด้านการย้ายถิ่น ฮอลล์เคยทำงานเป็นผู้ประสานงานการวิจัยให้องค์กรพัฒนาเอกชนชื่อฟินน์วอทช์ (Finnwatch) จากประเทศฟินแลนด์เมื่อ พ.ศ. 2555 ด้วยความช่วยเหลือจากทีมงานนักแปลและผู้ประสานงานท้องถิ่นเขาดำเนินการสัมภาษณ์แรงงานในประเทศไทย องค์กรฟินน์วอทช์ตีพิมพ์ผลการวิจัยจากการสัมภาษณ์ในรายงานชื่อ “สินค้าถูกมีราคาสูง” เมื่อเดือนมกราคม 2556

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