Trade Commission Cecilie Malmström on Thursday (6 October) strongly backed the British labour rights activist who helped expose labour abuses in Thailand, for which he received a three-year suspended jail sentence.
Lawyer Andy Hall met Malmström in Strasbourg, where MEPs also passed a strong resolution condemning Hall’s treatment under the military junta now running the country.
Malmström said the court’s verdict – finding Hall guilty of “criminal defamation” and “computer abuse” – cast a “deep shadow” over the ASEAN economy’s attempts to improve rights abuses.
EURACTIV.com has followed Hall’s case for more than a year, after he was first charged with the offences, relating to a report by Finland NGO FinnWatch called, Cheap Has A High Price.
Hall interviewed workers in the tinned fruit processing industry, although did not write the final report himself. Despite that, at his trial last month, he was found guilty under Thailand’s much criticised defamation laws, and handed the suspended sentence.
Commissioner Malmström said: “Defamation laws are being systematicaly used to silence analysis and debate in Thailand.”
“This verdict sends shivers through Thailand’s already nervous human rights and social rights community,” Malmström said, addressing EU lawmakers in Strasbourg.
Malmström’s Trade for All policy places a new emphasis on human rights in countries that sign trade deals with the EU-bloc.
Following the military coup against democratically-elected Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in 2014, the EU dropped ongoing talks with Thailand on a planned Free Trade Agreement.
EURACTIV revealed last year senior EU trade officials saying there would never be a FTA with Thailand whilst the junta was in power.
After his private meeting with Malmström, Hall tweeted Malmström as saying “respecting human rights law is important but is also good business. European consumers demand products free of labour abuses”.
He added: “Malmström’s message to Thailand: ‘Don’t underestimate the EU and its consumers real determination & demand for decent work/more transparency’.”
Hall, a trained lawyer who has lived in Thailand for many years, called on the EU to bring in legislation allowing consumers to trace the food supply-chain lines for products, allowing them to boycott goods from regimes with serious labour abuses.
Meanwhile, this morning, the European Parliament, sitting in Strasbourg, passed a resolution “regretting the guilty verdict” against Hall.
It added that the legislature “calls on the Thai government to ensure that the rights, including the right to a fair trial, of Andy Hall and other human rights defenders are respected and protected and that the promotion and protection of human rights are not criminalised.
“The European Parliament recognises the progress achieved by the Thai government in combating worker exploitation and protecting national and migrant workers and invites it to adopt and implement a “holistic long-term in-bound migration policy for low-skilled migrant workers in accordance with human rights principles”.
The EU has already put Thailand’s $3bn a year seafood export industry under a ‘yellow card’, for abuses of illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing, which depletes stocks unsustainably.
There have also been widespread accusations of abuses of labour rights on those fishing fleets, although the Thai government has made efforts – under General Prayuth Chan-ocha – to clean up abuses since the EU’s yellow card.
In response to today’s resolution from the European Parliament, the Thai government put out a statement stressing that the judicial process was independent of the government.
The case was brought against Hall by the Natural Fruit company, which supplies juice drinks to several European supermarkets.
The Thai government said it welcomed recognition, in the wording of the resolution, that Thailand was making some progress in tackling labour rights’ abuses.
It added: ““Thailand wishes to reiterate the fact that all of the criminal and civil cases against Mr Andy Hall were initiated by a private entity against another private entity.
“The Thai government is not a party to any of these cases and does not have any influence over the judicial process which is independent, separate and distinct from the executive branch. The Thai judicial system adheres to the utmost integrity, neutrality and transparency, as well as the principle of non-discrimination, in line with international standards. In this respect, Mr Andy Hall is fully entitled to the right to a fair trial and he can appeal the court decision.
Hall was in Strasbourg for a two-day trip. On Wednesday (5 October) he held a joint press conference with FinnWatch and MEPs who had supported his cause.
One of them, Green Finnish MEP Heidi Hautala, rejected the statement, saying “The European Parliament has today demanded that the government of Thailand take whatever action is necessary to drop the charges against human rights activist Andy Hall and repeal his conviction.
“This kind of limitation on freedom of expression raises concerns” that it may lead to further silencing of human rights defenders in the country.