Natural Fruit ups ante against rights activist

Natural Fruit ups ante against rights activist

Following a few months of relative quiet, the defamation case against British researcher Andy Hall is back in motion. Hall, who already faced three charges of defamation and violation of Thailand’s Computer Crimes Act, is set to appear before a public prosecutor on 18 June on an additional criminal charge.

A Thai pineapple processing company, Natural Fruit, brought the initial case against Hall in February 2013, alleging that his published research on conditions for migrant workers damaged the company’s reputation. The charges include two counts of criminal defamation, violation of Thailand’s controversial Computer Crimes Act, and a civil defamation lawsuit claiming damages of US$10 million.

The new criminal defamation charge, over which Hall was questioned by authorities on Monday, was levelled after Hall appeared in an Al Jazeera video segment produced in Rangoon. According to Hall, no one at Natural Fruit or among their counsel has seen the entire interview in question, having viewed only an edited clip on YouTube. He contends that the charge should be immediately dropped because “it’s not within the jurisdiction of the Thai legal system to prosecute me for that.”

Natural Fruit disagrees. The company’s lawyer, Dr. Somsak Torugsa, told DVB on Wednesday that “under Thai law, any charge of defamation that is made against Thai citizens or Thai companies can be tried in a Thai court of law.”

The prosecutor will decide on 18 June whether the case will proceed to court; Hall said that all of the charges have already been approved by both the Thai Attorney General’s office and the Chief Prosecutor. If convicted, he could face up to seven years in jail for each.

“I intend to defend all the cases,” he told DVB on Tuesday. “There are a lot of them adding up, and I intend to defend them all.”

Hall has been a researcher and advocate of migrant issues in Thailand for almost a decade, and last year he served an advisory role to Burma’s Ministry of Labour under an EU-led guidance programme. He contributed research to a 2013 report by an organisation called Finnwatch alleging abuses against migrant workers at several food production facilities in central Thailand, including Natural Fruit. Hall was lead researcher of the report, working at the time as Associate Researcher at Mahidol University in Thailand.

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While the other companies that he investigated, Thai Union Manufacturing and Unicord, participated in “very open dialogue”, Hall says that “we contacted Natural Fruit many times and they didn’t respond, and that’s why we went public with the findings.”

Those findings implicated the company in myriad abuses including restrictions on movement, underpaid labour, excessive fees and extremely unsafe working conditions. The report also suggested that many of the facility’s employees were involuntarily brought there by smugglers; though they intended to come to Thailand for some type of job, “no one wanted to work there in the first place”.

Natural Fruit’s legal counsel said that the company rejects all of the allegations.

The offenses detailed by Finnwatch ultimately led to costly inquiries and some procurement renegotiations between European retailers and their Thai suppliers. It also brought extra scrutiny to lengthy supply chains ending in Thailand, where many Burmese and other Southeast Asian migrants are employed.

Some of Hall’s supporters have argued that corporate information is too difficult to obtain from Thai companies, and that if a producer that supplies markets worldwide prefers not to be suddenly audited, they should take the initiative to be transparent about their labour practices.

Phil Robertson, Deputy Director for Human Rights Watch Asia division, endorsed Hall’s research as credible and fact-based, predicting that “the company and the prosecutor are going to find it very difficult to prove otherwise”. But for Natural Fruit, said Robertson, that’s not the point; the company is more concerned with punishing Hall “because he has hit them publicly and demonstrated to the company’s workers that it is possible for them to demand better treatment and wages.”

One potential outcome of the case, regardless of the verdict, is that it could intimidate rights workers and inhibit independent investigative work. While criminal libel laws have often been used to silence Thai journalists, activists and rights workers, Thai authorities and businesses alike have now become comfortable reaching across borders to keep people quiet. The Hall case is just one timely example.

“It’s a worrying trend that’s going on,” said Hall, remarking on another ongoing case of two journalists in southern Thailand facing a criminal trial for quoting controversial content published by the Reuters news agency. The pair — a Thai reporter and an Australian editor — have also been charged for defamation and violation of the Computer Crimes Act. Phuket police told DVB last week that they are still reviewing a complaint against Reuters, but did not confirm that charges will be pressed against them.

As Hall, who now lives in Rangoon, is scheduled to return to Bangkok in June to face the prosecutor, he said that he is preparing to hear charges and perhaps be jailed. He has also made clear that he will not pay bail, and will instead ask the Thai Food Processing Association, a semi-governmental industry regulating body, to pay on his behalf, “to send a message to the international community that this is just one company that’s going the wrong way, and it’s not reflective of the general situation in Thailand.”

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