‘I’d never run’: Labor activist won’t flee Thailand defamation charges
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‘I’d never run’: Labor activist won’t flee Thailand defamation charges

Activist Andy Hall is a man of principle. He’ll tell you that himself, especially when questioned about the mounting legal woes facing him in Thailand.

“I have no intention of leaving the country and I have no intention of stopping the work I’m doing,” Hall said in an interview this week. He spoke by phone from Bangkok, where he was preparing to board a plane to Burma. It’s surprising that the trip was happening at all, considering that Hall’s passport had recently been revoked by a Bangkok court.

Hall faces defamation charges and prosecution under the Computer Crimes Act for research he did on factory conditions in Thailand. A longtime activist working on migrant workers’ rights, Hall conducted research for a report published by Finnwatch, a Finnish NGO, on conditions in Thai factories that produced goods sold internationally. The report, titled Cheap has a high price, included interviews with workers at three companies: Thai Union Manufacturing, Unicord, and Natural Fruit. The report quoted workers describing subpar working conditions and abuses. Thai Union Manufacturing and Unicord responded to the report, but Natural Union did not, Hall said.

The company did, however, take legal action against Hall. A hearing is scheduled today for charges under the Computer Crimes Act, as well as defamation claims. On Sept. 2, he will stand trial for criminal defamation charges related to an interview he gave to Al Jazeera about the report. Hall also spoke publicly in Thailand about Finnwatch’s findings, which prompted Natural Fruit’s defamation charge.

Hall said he hopes the court will realize he did not intend to harm Natural Fruit, but wanted to speak out on behalf of the workers interviewed. He said Finnwatch gave Natural Fruit many opportunities to respond, but because they did not, he felt he needed to go public with the information.

“I don’t have any negative intentions toward this company. I didn’t even know them before I did the research,” he said. “We hope that it will be a fair trial and the judge will make their decision based on the facts. We gave the company the opportunity to respond many, many times. It wasn’t the intention to destroy the company… [the intention was to] improve conditions for the workers. There was no intention to defame the company.”

Hall’s passport was confiscated following his Sept. 2 trial date being set, but he was granted permission to leave the country to meet with witnesses in Burma this week. He said that although he could have fled once outside of Thailand, he will do no such thing.

“I’m not a flight risk, you know,” he said. “I came back to Thailand [from the U.K.] to fight this case. I would never run away, I’m a principled person.”

Among Hall’s prospective witnesses is Aung San Suu Kyi, who he met while working with the Burmese government.

Steve Cotton, acting general secretary of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), condemned the case against Hall in a statement released July 17.

“This legal case attempts to shoot the messenger and leave the true offender untouched,” Cotton said. “Thailand must address the unforgiveable abuses being allowed to take place on its lands and waters, and also ensure the right to freedom of opinion.”

Cotton also said Hall should be “praised, not prosecuted,” for his work exposing worker abuses.

If convicted, Hall faces up to 15 years in prison and three million baht in damages. Though one might expect Hall to leave Thailand behind should be declared not guilty, or should Natural Fruit drop the charges, he says he isn’t going anywhere.

“It’s a time of reform. I want to work with the government to support them, to help them. I’m not an enemy of Thailand, I’m there to help Thailand,” he said.

Hall said he is optimistic about the military junta’s actions on migrant workers rights, and expressed confidence about the government’s promise to address these issues. Thailand was recently downgraded to a Tier 3 country in the U.S.’ Trafficking in Persons (TiP) report, in part because of alleged abuses against migrant workers. The junta has said it is working to address the migrant worker questions and other issues raised in the TiP.

(MORE: Human trafficking downgrade a blow to Thailand’s military government)

“In terms of migration, I think it’s incredibly positive,” Hall said. “All the signals they’re giving so far, it’s positive.” He added that he hopes the junta will also address defamation laws, which he believes need to be reformed.

Hall said the outcome of his case could be huge for other activists looking to expose subpar work conditions. If he is convicted, the case could have a chilling effect on others doing humanitarian work, he said.

“I’ve committed my life to this work. I want to work with the government to solve these issues,” he said. “I have no intention of leaving the country and I have no intention of stopping the work I’m doing.”

For more information on Hall’s case, see andyjhall.wordpress.com