A Thai court has dismissed a criminal defamation case against a British human rights activist who investigated alleged abuses at a Thai fruit processing factory.
However, Andy Hall still faces charges in three other cases filed by the company Natural Fruit. The next trial begins today. Hall is currently on bail in Thailand.
His troubles began after he helped write a report last year for Finland-based watchdog Finnwatch on what it said were poor labour conditions in seafood and pineapple export companies in Thailand, including Natural Fruit. The company has denied the claims.
The first case against Hall related to defamation charges for an interview he gave to Qatar-based Al-Jazeera television.
The court dismissed the case yesterday because the interview took place in Burma, and Thailand’s attorney general office was not involved in the investigation, as is required by law. A lawyer for Natural Fruit said the company would appeal.
The report investigated a factory owned by Natural Fruit that employed hundreds of migrants from neighbouring Burma and alleged the company illegally confiscated passports, paid below the minimum wage and overworked staff in sweltering conditions where heatstroke was common.
Sonja Vartiala, executive director of Finnwatch, said she was “relieved and glad that justice has prevailed”. However, she added that Hall still faces up to seven years in jail and fines totalling the equivalent of £8.7 million if he is found guilty in the remaining cases.
She said: “Finnwatch demands Natural Fruit drop all the charges against Andy Hall. Instead of allowing companies to bring human rights activists to court, Thailand needs to prosecute companies like Natural Fruit, who are violating labour rights.”
On Finnwatch’s Facebook page, Hall said: “I’m delighted at today’s court ruling. It’s real victory for migrant workers, labour rights, rule of law, freedom of expression in Thailand”.
Mr Hall has worked in Thailand for years and is an outspoken activist on migrant issues.
Millions of impoverished migrants, largely from Burma and Cambodia, work in Thailand. Some do not have legal papers, and many work in low-skilled jobs for long hours at pay below their Thai counterparts. They typically lack health and social security benefits.
Thailand is home to a large expatriate community of around 200,000, mostly from Europe and North America. But increasing numbers of migrants from neighbouring Burma, Laos and Cambodia, as well as from Nepal and India, have pushed the number of non-national residents to an estimated 3.5 million.
The growing number of both legal and undocumented migrants has raised awareness in the country regarding the treatment of minorities.
Earlier this year the United States demoted Thailand to the lowest level in its annual rankings of governments’ anti-human trafficking efforts, principally over its failures to do enough to stop abusive practices in the Thai seafood industry.
A military junta has been has been in control of Thailand since May this year, when prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra was forced to step down amid accusations of abuse of power.
In August she was replaced by army chief General Prayut Chan-o-cha.