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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”