A British lawyer who helped expose labour abuses in Thailand’s fruit factories has been handed a three-year suspended jail sentence.
Andy Hall was the researcher for a Finnish NGO, interviewing workers about conditions in the country’s key export industry, but had no part in writing the final report.
His surprise jail sentence comes after the ruling military junta was newly empowered by victory in a referendum redefining the country’s constitution to embed its powers within the legislature.
Hall is unlikely to serve the jail sentence, having already applied for bail, and is thought to be heading to Sweden and Finland later in the week.
The trial proceedings themselves have lasted nearly four years.
The director of Finnwatch, the NGO behind the original Cheap Has A High Price report, condemned the verdict.
Sonja Vartiala said, “”We are shocked by today’s verdict. The report was authored and published by Finnwatch; we take full responsibility for it. Andy has been made a scapegoat in order to stifle other voices that speak out legitimately in support of migrant worker rights.”
”This is a sad day for freedom of expression in Thailand. We fear that many other human rights defenders and victims of company abuse will be scared to silence by this ruling,” added Vartiala.
Hall’s case was previously taken up in the European Parliament by MEPs including Glenis Willmott. EurActiv.com has contacted Willmott for a reaction.
Thailand has been under a military junta since a coup in 2014. The country’s tinned and processed fruit sector is not the only one under the spotlight.
Repeated human rights abuses, and disregard for fish stocks, have led the European Commission to impose a ‘yellow card’ on its $3bn fish export sector, under “Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported” fishing rules.
An upgrade to a red card would see a total ban, although the junta has moved to make improvements to rules governing its fishing fleet.
Hall, from Lincolnshire, has already said on Twitter he will appeal the verdict.
I/my legal team will appeal today's decision in line with Thai justice system. Still fully confident our team/I will receive justice in end
— Andy Hall (@Atomicalandy) September 20, 2016
Hall was also ordered by the Bangkok court to pay a €3,000 fine. He was found guilty under two criminal charges, defamation and ‘computer abuse’.
In addition to the two criminal cases, Natural Fruit – the company named in the Finnwatch report – has also filed two civil claims for damages against Hall totalling nearly €7m.
Natural Fruit denied all allegations set against it in the report.
Thailand has seen a marked deterioration in its free press under the junta, according to Reporters Without Borders, with domestic journalists often hauled off for “re-edcuation” in military camps.
It also has some of the world’s toughest laws on ‘lese majeste’, or criticising the royal family in any shape or form.
However, until now, foreign reporters and activists had largely been spared the sentences meted out to their Thai counterparts.
Thailand has a poor record on labour rights, especially for foreigners from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos, who receive little protection. Workers who raise complaints are often targeted by their employers.
“Andy Hall coordinated important research about abuses of workers’ rights in Thailand and he should never have been prosecuted for his actions,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
He said the long and intensive court fight has “had a distinctly chilling effect on other activists pressing for the protection of workers’ rights in Thai companies, many of which export their products to foreign consumers.”
Human Rights Watch said criminal defamation laws should be abolished, as criminal penalties are always disproportionate punishments for reputational harm and infringe on free expression.
Finnwatch said it has spoken to Hall, who was in “relatively good spirits”.