NEWS > GENERAL Finnwatch takes heat for fruit report
Aleading British human rights activist has gone on trial in Bangkok on charges that carry up to seven years in jail for exposing allegations of labour abuses at a Thai company.
Andy Hall has been pursued through the Thai courts relentlessly since early 2013 in a series of cases brought by Natural Fruit Company, a pineapple juice business that supplied European and US markets.
Mr Hall, a Thai speaker who has lived in the kingdom for 11 years, is one of the country’s most prominent campaigners for the rights of migrant workers in the seafood and agricultural industries.
As he went into court on Wednesday, the 37-year-old told The Telegraph: “I’m very disappointed this case has been allowed to reach trial. It reflects badly on Thailand that I’m being pursued through the courts for just conducting research, though I also remain confident that I will be cleared.”
His retired parents, Patricia, 70, and Desmond Hall, 68, were following events nervously 6,000 miles away at home in Spalding, Lincs, he said.
“My mother sent me a message this morning sending their love and support. But they understand why I am here and said they were very proud of what I do.”
He has also previously worked with Aung San Suu Kyi, the then Burmese opposition leader, and lived in Burma.
His work has earned him many admirers. Indeed, he noted that two Thai seafood industry associations had helped fund his bail as they backed his work to improve labour conditions.
But he has also made powerful enemies. Most notably, the owner of Natural Fruit heads the Thai pineapple industry association and is the elder brother of a former Cabinet minister for labour.
The company has lodged four separate criminal and civil cases that could result in crippling damages awards and several years behind bars for the Briton if he is convicted.
The most serious case – charges of criminal defamation and computer crimes for allegedly uploading the information online – has now reached court. Mr Hall denies any wrongdoing.
His legal troubles follow his work as a freelance research for Finnwatch, a Finnish campaign group, investigating working conditions for migrant workers in Thailand.
The report, Cheap Has a High Price, published in 2012, disclosed allegations of abusive conditions, illegally low pay and discrimination made by Burmese labourers at the Natural Fruit canning facility.
The company denies the allegations and lodged defamation cases within weeks.
In court in Bangkok, its deputy managing director, Kachin Komneyawich, claimed that the company had lost customers because of the “false information”, without explaining what was “false” about the research.
Mr Hall could be jailed for two years on the criminal defamation charges, while the computer crimes charges carry a maximum sentence of another five years.
“The computer crimes charges are ridiculous as the allegation is that I uploaded the information onto the Internet, when all I did was supply research to Finnwatch who wrote and published the report.
“As for the defamation cases, I stand by my research. I’ve been working on migrant workers issues here for 10 years and haven’t got any money anyway.”
Human rights groups and freedom of speech campaigners have warned that the prosecution of Mr Hall could have a “chilling” impact on other activists in the junta-ruled country.
“These bogus charges are all about trying to intimidate an independent researcher, all with the blessings of Thai prosecutors who should have known better and steered clear,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director or Human Rights Watch
“This is pure and simple judicial harassment that should send a chill up the spine of international companies sourcing from Thailand who are concerned about possible abuses in their supply chains.”
British, Finnish and EU diplomats observed proceedings in court and the trial has also attracted international attention from the European parliament, the US state department and the United Nations.
Mr Hall has had to surrender his British passport to the court as part of his bail conditions and must seek permission for any travel.