Thai court indicts previously acquitted British activist

BANGKOK - A Thai court Monday indicted a British labour rights activist 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 previously been acquitted by a court last year on a defamation charge pursued by Thailand's Attorney General.

But Natural Fruit, the company at the heart of the dispute, has filed a string of its own criminal and civil cases against Hall, the most serious of which was accepted Monday.

"We have learnt that the Southern Criminal Court has agreed to hear the case against Andy Hall for defamation and violation of the Computer Crimes Act," Hall's defence lawyer Nakhon Chomphuchat told AFP.

Hall has been ordered to appear in court on 19 October for a plea hearing, Nakhon added with the court expected to decide today whether he gets bail.

The labour activist, who is based in Thailand, faces up to seven years in jail if convicted.

Both Thailand's criminal defamation and computer misuse laws have been criticised by rights groups for their broad wording and the ease with which they can be used to stifle investigative work.

Hall's 2013 report centred on working conditions at a Natural Fruit factory in southern Thailand levelling accusations of forced and child labour, unlawfully low wages and long hours.

Titled "Cheap Has a High Price" and published by the Finnish civil rights group Finnwatch, the report redoubled scrutiny of Thailand's food industry which has faced years of allegations of mistreatment of its mainly migrant labour force.

Natural Fruit, a major supplier to the European drink market, has denied the allegations in Hall's report and launched a slew of court cases against the Briton, including a civil case seeking $10 million in damages.

The company was unavailable for comment Monday.

Thailand's Attorney General is also appealing last year's acquittal.

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

In a statement Finnwatch executive director Sonja Vartiala described the court case as "a saga of intimidation already lasting 30 months aimed at nothing but gagging a human rights defender".

"Regrettably the court chose instead to press on with a trial of these unfounded charges," she said.

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

The junta has launched a crackdown on the fishing industry after the European Union this year threatened to place the kingdom under an export ban unless more was done to tackle abuses in the crucial sector.

Last month Thailand was also kept on the bottom rung of the United States's annual ranking for countries accused of turning a blind eye to human trafficking, alongside nations like Libya, North Korea and Eritrea.