Thai court dismisses defamation case against British activist over labour abuse allegations

British activist Andy Hall (right) receives flowers from his supporters as he arrives at a court in Bangkok on Oct 29, 2014. A Thai court dismissed a defamation charge against a British activist on Wednesday in a case linked to a report he co-au
British activist Andy Hall (right) receives flowers from his supporters as he arrives at a court in Bangkok on Oct 29, 2014. A Thai court dismissed a defamation charge against a British activist on Wednesday in a case linked to a report he co-authored alleging severe labour abuses in Thailand's food industry, a key supplier to Western supermarkets. -- PHOTO: AFP

BANGKOK (AFP) - A Thai court dismissed a defamation charge against a British activist on Wednesday in a case linked to a report he co-authored alleging severe labour abuses in Thailand's food industry, a key supplier to Western supermarkets.

Mr Andy Hall, 34, had faced up to a year in jail if convicted of defamation - a criminal offence in Thailand - after Thai fruit processing giant Natural Fruit made the complaint against him.

Mr Hall's report investigating working conditions at a Natural Fruit factory in southern Thailand levelled accusations of forced and child labour, unlawfully low wages and long hours. It also redoubled scrutiny of Thailand's food industry which has in recent months faced a series of allegations of mistreatment of its mainly migrant labour force.

A judge at the Bangkok court said the police probe, which stemmed from an interview with television network Al-Jazeera, was flawed since it did not involve a Thai state prosecutor from the start. Delivering her ruling, the judge described the investigation as "unlawful" and said "the plaintiff has no legal right to file a complaint... so the court dismisses the case".

Natural Fruit, a major supplier to the European drink market, has denied the allegations in Mr Hall's report and said it will appeal the ruling.

"The court did not rule on the accusations made by Andy Hall... we will appeal," Mr Somsak Torugsa, a lawyer for Natural Fruit, told reporters outside court.

But Mr Hall stands by his research and has accused the company of trying to detract from the report's damning findings through legal action.

Beaming and shaking hands with supporters who gathered outside the court, Hall hailed the ruling as "a real victory for migrant workers".

"The workers who have fought with me now have much more faith in the system... they can see that if you're willing to fight, if you're willing to put aside your fear, then you can fight and you can win," he said.

The case related to Mr Hall's interview with Al-Jazeera over his 2013 report for Finnish rights watchdog Finnwatch titled "Cheap Has a High Price".

More serious charges await under the Computer Crimes Act and for defamation by publication, in a separate case to be heard in November, related to the content and distribution of the Finnwatch report. Together the two charges carry up to seven years in jail.

The fruit processor is also seeking US$10 million (S$12.7 million) through a civil suit.

After the ruling, Finnwatch called for the remaining cases against the British activist to be dropped and for Thai authorities to focus on companies which are violating labour rights.

Prominent European food firms have also called for the charges to be dropped as the Thai food industry continues to face bad headlines.

Accounts have circulated of abuse - particularly inside the fishing industry - of illegal immigrants held captive and forced into unpaid labour, sometimes on boats at sea for years on end without receiving any payment.

Thailand has long turned to migrants from poorer neighbours Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos to help keep major industries afloat, from seafood to construction.

But they often lack official work permits - despite a recent drive to regularise migrant labour - and are paid below the minimum wage.

In June the US State Department downgraded Thailand to its lowest ranking in a report on human trafficking, highlighting abuses in the fisheries industry among others.

Thailand's food export industry has since been at pains to try to burnish its image, aware of the mounting pressure on its global buyers.

This week, the fishing industry - which accounts for 40 per cent of Thai exports of food products - was heavily represented at a major trade fair near Paris.