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Thai defamation trial begins

September 2, 2014

A British human rights activist who alleged serious labor abuses in Thailand's food industry has gone on trial for defamation. The charge is a criminal offense in Thailand.

Andy Hall
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

British national Andy Hall (pictured) faces jail over lawsuits brought against him by a Thai fruit processor. Natural Fruit accuses Hall of defamation after a report he authored leveled accusations of forced and child labor, unlawfully low wages and long hours at one of its factories.

Natural Fruit is a major supplier to the European drink market. Hall's report, written last year for the Finland-based watchdog group Finnwatch, investigated a Natural Fruit factory that employs hundreds of migrants from neighboring Myanmar.

It found the company illegally confiscated passports, paid below the minimum wage and that heatstrokes were common because staff were overworked in sweltering conditions.

Hall faces four civil and criminal cases, the first of which began on Tuesday, relating to defamation charges for an interview on the subject he gave to the Al Jazeera network. He has worked in Thailand for a number of years and is an outspoken activist on migrant issues.

Hall says the company is trying to use the legal action to divert attention from his findings. The 34-year-old, whose passport has been confiscated by Thai authorities pending trial, faces jail time and a fine of up to $10 million (7.6 million euros).

Natural Fruit denies the accusations. Its owner, Virat Piyapornpaiboon, said he was saddened by the allegations.

Trial criticized

Activists have criticized the trial, including Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Right Watch's Asia division. Robertson said it would have a "chilling effect" on independent researchers trying to get information on the industry.

Natural Fruit, Robertson said, "has decided to take a punitive approach rather than address the problems in their factory. This is all about trying to intimidate people who are prepared to investigate human rights abuses."

The trials come months after the US State Department downgraded Thailand to its lowest ranking in a report on human trafficking, highlighting abuses in the fisheries industry, among others.

Millions of impoverished migrants from poorer nations such as Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos, come to Thailand to seek out work in major industries. Many lack legal papers and official work permits.

The trial comes after a recent crackdown on freedom of speech, following a coup in May which overthew Thailand's elected government. Thailand's military rulers have also silenced their political opponents, threatening them with prosecution if they disturb public order.

jr/slk (AP, AFP)