British labour activist to face fresh defamation trial in Thailand

 British rights activist Andy Hall arrives at a court to surrender himself into custody in Bangkok, Thailand on Jan 13, 2016.
British rights activist Andy Hall arrives at a court to surrender himself into custody in Bangkok, Thailand on Jan 13, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK (AFP) - A British activist must face a new criminal defamation trial, a Thai court ruled on Monday (Jan 18), the latest in a slew of cases tied to a rights report documenting labour abuses in Thailand's lucrative fruit sector.

Mr Andy Hall, who has lived in the kingdom for several years and speaks Thai, had previously been acquitted by a court last year on a defamation charge pursued by Thailand's Attorney-General.

But Natural Fruit, the company at the heart of the dispute, has filed a string of its own criminal and civil cases against Mr Hall, including a private prosecution on criminal defamation and computer crime charges.

Mr Hall, 34, tweeted the outcome of today's hearing, saying the court had agreed to a 12-day trial starting on May 19. He faces up to seven years in jail if convicted.

Both Thailand's criminal defamation and computer misuse laws have been criticised by rights groups for their broad wording and the ease with which they can be used to stifle investigative work.

Mr Hall co-authored a 2013 report centred on working conditions at a Natural Fruit factory in southern Thailand levelling accusations of forced and child labour, unlawfully low wages and long hours.

Titled "Cheap Has a High Price" and published by the Finnish civil rights group Finnwatch, the report redoubled scrutiny of Thailand's food industry, which has faced years of allegations of mistreatment of its mainly migrant labour force.

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

The European Union has threatened to blacklist Thailand's huge fishing sector, partially linked to allegations of slavery aboard ships and labour abuses in processing plants.

Last year, Thailand was also kept on the bottom rung of the United States's annual ranking for countries accused of turning a blind eye to human trafficking, alongside nations like Libya, North Korea and Eritrea.

Natural Fruit, a major supplier to the European drink market, has denied the allegations in Mr Hall's report and has also launched a civil case seeking US$10 million (S$14.4 million) in damages.

Thailand's Attorney-General is also appealing Mr Hall's initial acquittal.

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

Officials from the British and Finnish embassies were in court to monitor the case.