Setting a chilling precedent for human rights defenders worldwide, a British activist on Tuesday was convicted of criminal defamation and cyber crimes by a Thai court for his work exposing the abuse of migrant workers at a pineapple processing plant.
Andy Hall, with the Migrant Worker Rights Network, had contributed to the 2013 report Cheap Has a High Price (pdf) by Finnwatch, a Finnish civil society organization, that outlined allegations of serious human rights violations by Natural Fruit Company Ltd.
Hall was given a three-year suspended jail term by the Southern Bangkok Criminal Court, "meaning Hall will be free unless he breaks the law during that period," Reuters reported, and fined roughly $4,300. He was initially sentenced to four years in prison, but the judge reduced the terms "due to his history of doing public good and his record as a rights defender."
Still, Finnwatch and rights groups worldwide swiftly condemned the ruling.
"We are shocked by today's verdict. The report was authored and published by Finnwatch; we take full responsibility for it. Andy has been made a scapegoat in order to stifle other voices that speak out legitimately in support of migrant worker rights," said Sonja Vartiala, executive director of Finnwatch.
"Andy Hall has spent years working to protect the rights of marginalized workers in Thailand. He should be commended for his efforts, not fined and sentenced," said Malaysian Parliament member and Asian Parliamentarians for Human Rights chairperson Charles Santiago. "This case amounted to legal harassment of a dedicated human rights defender, and today's verdict is a major setback for free expression and principled advocacy."
Vartiala said the organization is concerned that the ruling will "silence" others who work to expose such abuses.
Others shared that concern and condemned Thailand's military government for allowing these laws to be used against advocates of human rights.
"I do not feel shame or regret," said activist Andy Hall. "I am fighting for the rights of migrant workers."
"Human rights defenders such as Andy Hall have the right to exercise freedom of expression in advocating for the protection and realization of human rights—a right that Thailand has a duty to protect," said Kingsley Abbott, senior international legal adviser at the Geneva-based human rights watchdog International Commission of Jurists.
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"Unfortunately, there are numerous examples of criminal defamation and the Computer Crime Act being used against human rights defenders in Thailand, a practice that must end, including through a substantial reform of these laws," he added.
Laurent Meillan, acting regional representative for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the ruling is "very disturbing" given that it came one day after world leaders "committed to a landmark UN declaration to 'strengthen the positive contributions made by migrants to economic and social development in their host countries.'"
"Instead of prosecuting Mr. Hall, it would have been more appropriate to conduct an independent and thorough investigation into the serious allegations raised in the Finnwatch report," Meillan said.
Instead, reporting indicates that during the trial the court showed bias on the side of the privately-owned fruit wholesaler.
According to BBC, "in court Andy Hall was repeatedly asked to prove his allegations of low wages, and dire conditions against the pineapple processing giant. Despite bringing his research notes, photos and several witnesses to court it wasn't enough."
Further, "[i]n their summing up the judges gave weight to Natural Fruit's evidence that government inspectors had regularly visited the factory and found no serious issues."
After the ruling, Hall, who is expected to appeal, told reporters: "I do not feel shame or regret...I am fighting for the rights of migrant workers."
He added that his conviction would send "shockwaves in the international community."