“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