A British activist based in Thailand is “very confident” he will be spared up to seven years in prison for his role in a report alleging the severe labour rights abuses of Myanmar migrant workers.
Speaking to Frontier on January 11 before he formally surrendered himself into custody ahead of an indictment hearing later this month, Andy Hall dismissed the case brought against him by a Thai canned fruit company as “ridiculous.”
The charges have been widely condemned as an attempt to silence and intimidate the 35-year-old rights activist.
Natural Fruit Co Ltd led four separate criminal and civil charges against Mr Hall after the publication of a report by the Finnish NGO Finnwatch in 2013. The report alleged serious human rights abuses at the company’s pineapple canning factory in Prachuap Khiri Khan Province, southwest of Bangkok.
Finnwatch said it uncovered evidence of dangerous working conditions, child labour, discrimination and violence against Myanmar employees. Migrants interviewed by Mr Hall for the report said factory bosses withheld their passports to prevent them from leaving and paid less than the minimum wage.
The company responded by accusing Mr Hall of intentionally trying to damage its reputation by spreading false information. The indictment hearing on January 18 relates to a charge of criminal defamation and offences under the Computer Crimes Act, which prohibits online material that is considered a threat to national security.
Finnwatch on January 11 cast doubt on the prospects of a fair trial, but Mr Hall remains optimistic.
“At the end of the day I did nothing wrong,” he said. “I’m simply reporting what
workers said to me in interviews, I have evidence to back up what I did and I did it in the public interest so I’m very confident the court will dismiss this.”
In September, Thailand’s Appeal Court dismissed another criminal defamation charge against Mr Hall over an interview with Al Jazeera in Yangon about Natural Fruit. The court ruled that Thai police should not have investigated the case because the interview took place outside Thailand.
Finnwatch on January 11 questioned Natural Fruit’s decision to target Mr Hall rather than the NGO, which was responsible for the report.
“This case is ridiculous,” said Mr Hall. “It was a Finnwatch report and it was put on Finnwatch’s website. I didn’t write the report, I didn’t author the report and I have no access to Finnwatch’s website so we’re very disappointed that the court has even accepted this case for prosecution. It’s just harassment,” he said.
More than 115,000 people have signed a petition calling on Natural Fruit to drop all charges against Mr Hall. The activist has lived in Thailand for more than a decade and has worked extensively with Myanmar migrant workers.
He is one of the most vocal advocates for Ko Zaw Lin and Ko Win Zaw Htun (also known as Ko Wai Phyo), the migrant workers sentenced to death by a Thai court in December for the gruesome murder of two British backpackers after what has been condemned as a deeply flawed investigation.
Finnwatch has raised concerns about the preliminary hearings ahead of Mr Hall’s trial, a date for which will be set at the indictment hearing.
“During the preliminary hearings in this prosecution, Natural Fruit was able to produce its own witnesses to the court to proceed with the case to a trial whereas the defence only had the opportunity to cross examine prosecution witnesses,” the NGO said in a statement.
Lawyers representing Mr Hall recommended he surrender to the authorities ahead of the indictment hearing to give him time to apply for bail. Finnwatch, along with the Thai Tuna Industry Association and the Thai Union Group, have offered 300,000 baht (about US$8,000) as surety for bail.
Natural Fruit is seeking more than $8 million in damages in a separate civil case. The company says it lost business after the report was issued. But Mr Hall argues that the report, titled “Cheap Has a High Price”, did not directly cause the company any losses.
“The reason why they lost customers is because the customers came to them and said there are serious allegations for human rights abuses so we want to have an audit, and they said no,” he said.
“European retailers did pull out not because of the report; the Finnwatch report said very clearly that people shouldn’t pull out … they have a duty to make things better.” He added that the company is “shooting itself in the foot” by pursuing a high profile prosecution.
“By prosecuting they’ve showed themselves to be completely irrational … in order to be a company exporting to Europe you need to have social responsibility standards. You need to protect workers and you need to respect human rights activists.”
This article originally appeared in Issue #29 of Frontier.