Thai court dismisses case against British rights activist

Thai court dismisses case against British rights activist
British rights activist Andy Hall arriving for his trial at the Phra Khanong Provincial Court in Bangkok.

BANGKOK - A Thai court dismissed a defamation charge against a British activist Wednesday in a case linked to a report he co-authored alleging severe labour abuses in Thailand's food industry, a key supplier to Western supermarkets.

Andy Hall, 34, had faced up to a year in jail if convicted of defamation - a criminal offence in Thailand - after Thai fruit processing giant Natural Fruit made the complaint against him.

Hall's report investigating working conditions at a fruit processing factory belonging to Natural Fruit in southern Thailand levelled accusations of forced and child labour, unlawfully low wages and long hours.

But a judge at the Bangkok court said the police probe, which stemmed from an interview with television network Al-Jazeera, was flawed as it did not involve a Thai state prosecutor from the start.

"The investigation was not legal, which means the plaintiff has no legal right to file a complaint... the court dismisses the case," the judge - who was not named by the court - ruled.

Natural Fruit, a major supplier to the European drink market, has denied the allegations in Hall's report.

Hall stands by his research and has accused the company of trying to distract from the report's damning findings through legal action.

Ahead of the ruling Hall told AFP he was "very confident" the case would be thrown out.

The case related to an Hall's interview with Al-Jazeera over his 2013 report for Finnish rights watchdog Finnwatch called "Cheap Has a High Price".

More serious charges await under the computer crime act - which carry up to seven years in jail for each count - and are due to be heard in November.

The fruit processor is also seeking US$10 million (S$1.27 million) through a civil suit.

Prominent European food firms have called for the charges to be dropped, while rights groups have criticised the defamation proceedings from a Thai food industry that has faced a slew of bad headlines over recent months.

Accounts have circulated of abuse - particularly inside the fishing industry - of illegal immigrants held captive and forced into unpaid labour, sometimes on boats at sea for years on end without receiving any payment for their work.

Thailand has long turned to migrants from poorer neighbours Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos to help keep major Thai industries afloat, from seafood to construction.

But they often lack official work permits and are paid below the minimum wage.

In June the US State Department downgraded Thailand to its lowest ranking in a report on human trafficking, highlighting abuses in the fisheries industry among others.

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