Thai court dismisses defamation charges against labor activist
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Thai court dismisses defamation charges against labor activist

But British activist Andy Hall’s ‘most serious’ challenge still lies ahead…

An Appeals Court in Thailand delivered another blow to the Natural Fruit company’s ongoing, much derided litigation against British activist Andy Hall. The court threw out a defamation case Natural Fruit brought against Hall on Friday, saying that police never should have investigated the charges. Natural Fruit accused Hall of defaming the company in an interview he gave to Al Jazeera while in Burma (Myanmar). The court said that because the interview did not take place in Thailand, the case had no grounds for being heard there.

The defamation case is one of four suits Natural Fruit raised against Hall, who is a labor rights activist. The litigation began after Hall publicized the findings of a report documenting Natural Fruit and other companies’ exploitive practices against migrant workers. Hall worked with Finnwatch, a Finnish NGO, on ‘Cheap has a high price’, which was published in 2013. Natural Fruit didn’t respond to the allegations in the report, prompting Hall to speak publicly about the company’s abuses. Hall and the other researchers accused Natural Fruit of using child labor and under-paying migrant workers, a report corroborated by a worker who testified on Hall’s behalf last fall.

Prakanong Court dismissed a civil defamation suit against Hall in Oct. 2014 due to unlawful interrogation. Hall still faces criminal defamation and computer crimes charges, for which he will be formally indicted on Oct. 19, 2015. If he loses the case, he could be sentenced to up to seven years in prison. Finnwatch released a statement following Friday’s decision saying, “We are relieved and glad about today’s Court decision and that the legality of the previous dismissal has been upheld.” But the organization acknowledged that the criminal charges are the “most serious” Hall is up against, given the potential prison term.

Hall’s situation sparked international outrage early on, with Finnwatch, Human Rights Watch, and labor groups decrying Natural Fruit’s actions. Representatives from several rights organizations spoke with Asian Correspondent last year about the implications of the charges. All agreed that should Hall be imprisoned, there would be a chilling effect among other activists in the region.

“The government should recognize that freedom to investigate corporate abuses is critical to ensuring compliance and accountability under Thai law and international human rights standards,” Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch’s Asia director, said in July.

Thailand has come under international scrutiny in recent years, with many outlets reporting on abuses and exploitation of migrant workers. HRW wrote the following on the issue:

“The human rights and labor rights of migrant workers from Burma, Cambodia, and Laos living and working in Thailand have been regularly violated with impunity over the years. Human Rights Watch’s research shows that migrant workers often receive little or no protection from Thai labor laws despite Thai government assertions that all legally registered migrant workers are covered by those laws. The research also shows that migrant workers who raise complaints against Thai employers frequently face retaliation.”

The organization also called for criminal defamation laws, such as Thailand’s Computer Crimes Act, to be abolished.

The Diplomat has also reported on worker abuses, writing that, “Police rarely take complaints by migrant workers seriously, and employers and local authorities often restrict workers’ freedom of movement, in some cases banning the use of motorcycles or mobile phones. Following the double murder on Koh Tao in September [2014], the provincial governor said authorities wanted to impose a 10pm curfew for migrant workers.”

The outcome of Hall’s criminal defamation and Computer Crimes cases could dramatically impact activism and whistleblowing in Thailand and throughout the region.