(New York) – A Bangkok criminal court is expected to hand down a verdict on September 20, 2016, in the case of a British researcher for his work on labor rights abuses in Thailand, Human Rights Watch said today. Andy Hall faces up to seven years in prison if convicted of criminal defamation and violating the Computer Crimes Act.
“Andy Hall coordinated important research about abuses of workers’ rights in Thailand and he should never have been prosecuted for his actions,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Whatever the verdict, the long and intensive court fight has had a distinctly chilling effect on other activists pressing for the protection of workers’ rights in Thai companies, many of which export their products to foreign consumers.”
In February 2013, the Natural Fruit Company Limited sued Hall in response to an investigative report by the organization FinnWatch, which included information about alleged labor rights violations at the company’s factory in Prachaub Kirikhan province. The company, whose workforce at that factory consists mostly of migrant workers from Burma, asserted that Hall defamed and damaged the company by “broadcasting false statements to public media.” Based on the company's filings, the court accepted the case against Hall, in which Hall was also accused under the Computer Crimes Act, and formally charged him on January 18, 2016.
Criminal defamation laws should be abolished, as criminal penalties are always disproportionate punishments for reputational harm and infringe on free expression, Human Rights Watch said. Criminal defamation laws are open to easy abuse, resulting in very harsh consequences, including imprisonment. As repeal of criminal defamation laws in an increasing number of countries has shown, such laws are not necessary to protect reputations.
The FinnWatch report, “Cheap has a high price: Responsibility problems relating to international private label products and food production in Thailand,” examines the production of food sourced from Thailand and sold in Finland. Based on field research and interviews conducted in November 2012 with employees of the company’s Prachaub Kirikhan factory, the report alleged that Natural Fruit Company Limited had committed serious labor rights abuses, including poor working conditions, confiscation of workers’ official documents, use of child labor, unlawfully low wages, and excessive overtime. In line with its research protocols, FinnWatch said it contacted representatives of the Natural Fruit Company Limited several times during the research period to discuss its preliminary findings, but that the company did not respond to these requests.
Human Rights Watch’s own research has found the human rights and labor rights of migrant workers from Burma, Cambodia, and Laos working in Thailand have been regularly violated with impunity over the years. Human Rights Watch found that migrant workers frequently receive little or no protection from Thai labor laws despite government assertions that all legally registered migrant workers will be protected under those laws. Migrant workers who raise complaints against Thai employers commonly face retaliation.
“Migrant workers in Thailand face huge challenges in asserting their rights in Thailand,” said Adams. “Prosecuting Andy Hall for his association with independent efforts to document rights abuses raises serious questions about Thailand’s readiness to protect workers’ rights.”
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9/18: The original news release mistakenly listed that Hall had been charged with criminal sedition. He had actually been charged with criminal defamation.
9/19: The original news release stated that government prosecutors joined the defamation case against Hall. The National Fruit Company Limited actually filed a petition with the Bangkok criminal court directly; they accepted the case and then charged him under the Computer Crimes Act.