British activist Andy Hall was found guilty of criminal defamation and breaching cyber crime laws and given a three-year suspended jail sentence over a report on labour abuse in the fruit canning sector, his lawyer said on Tuesday.
International rights defenders have cried foul over the Criminal Court's ruling against British activist Andy Hall, saying the ruling could chill efforts to protect the rights of migrant workers.
The Bangkok South Criminal Court found Mr Hall, who campaigned for the rights of migrant workers, guilty of defamation and computer crimes.
The charges were bought against Mr Hall stemming from a 2013 report he wrote for Finnwatch, a Finnish civil society organisation. It accused the food company Natural Fruit of rights violations at its pineapple processing plant in Prachuap Khiri Khan. The report claimed the firm paid wages below the legal minimum and the working hours were long.
The court on Tuesday sentenced Mr Hall to four years in prison and ordered him to pay a 200,000 baht fine.
The jail term was commuted to three years and the fine was reduced to 150,000 for his cooperation in the proceedings. The term was suspended for two years.
Mr Hall, from Lincolnshire in England, said he will appeal against the judgement.
Virat: No foreigner should think they have power above Thai sovereignty. (EPA photo)
The verdict "shows people are not free or at liberty to do this kind of research", he said.
Natural Fruit denied the allegations in the report titled Cheap Has a High Price and has launched a civil case seeking US$10 million (348 million baht) in damages and several criminal suits.
Reacting to the court's decision, the company's president Virat Piyapornpaiboon said justice has been served and that "no foreigner should think they have power above Thai sovereignty".
The Finnish organisation said it was shocked by the verdict.
"The report was authored and published by Finnwatch. We take full responsibility for it. Andy has been made a scapegoat to stifle other voices that speak out legitimately in support of migrant worker rights," said Sonja Vartiala, executive director of Finnwatch.
The UN Human Rights Office for South-East Asia (OHCHR) echoed the concern.
"Just a day after world leaders committed to a landmark UN declaration to strengthen the contributions made by migrants to economic and social development in their host countries, this court decision is very disturbing," said Laurent Meillan, OHCHR's Acting Regional Representative.
Meanwhile, Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) warned the ruling could have a chilling effect on other researchers and advocates striving to protect the rights of migrant workers.
"Andy Hall has spent years working to protect the rights of marginalised workers in Thailand. He should be commended for his efforts," said APHR chairman Charles Santiago.
Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said Mr Hall should have never been prosecuted for his work on Natural Fruit company in the first place.
"I expect this conviction is going to have a chilling effect on all supply chain research in Thailand."
British activist Andy Hall was found guilty Tuesday of criminal defamation and breaching cyber crime laws and given a three-year suspended jail sentence over a report on labour abuse in the fruit canning sector, his lawyer said.
Mr Hall, who lives in Thailand, has faced a cascade of legal actions for co-authoring a 2013 report on a Natural Fruit factory, alleging poor working conditions, low wages and child labour.
Natural Fruit, a major supplier to the European drink market, brought the action against Hall.
The activist "was found guilty of defamation and under the Computer Crimes Act... the court sentenced him to four years in jail, reduced to three," his lawyer Nakhon Chomphuchat told AFP after the verdict. The sentence was suspended he said.
The contentious report, Cheap Has a High Price, was published by the Finnish civil rights group Finnwatch.
It alleged serious mistreatment of the company's mainly migrant labour force.
Natural Fruit denied the allegations in the report and has also launched a civil case seeking US$10 million in damages.
Mr Hall, who said he will appeal the judgement, stands by his research and has accused the company of trying to detract from the report's damning findings through legal action.
Speaking after the trial on Tuesday, Mr Hall said the verdict "shows people are not free or at liberty to do this kind of research".
"There's a huge problem with human trafficking in Thailand. There's a huge problem with labour exploitation," added the activist, who in recent years has also drawn attention to abuses in Thailand's shady fishing and poultry sectors.
Mr Hall tweeted the court sentenced him to four years in prison and imposed a 200,000-baht fine. The jail term was reduced to three years and the fine cut to 50,000 baht because he cooperated in the proceedings.
The jail term was suspended for three years as the court considered his work as a human rights activist was beneficial to the Thai society, he wrote. He confirmed he would appeal.
The president of Natural Fruit was in an unforgiving mood after the ruling.
"No foreigner should think they have power above Thai sovereignty," said company president Virat Piyapornpaiboon, accusing Hall of "violating his rights".
Mr Hall was acquitted by a court last year on a separate defamation charge pursued by the Office of the Attorney-General.
Finnwatch argued that their organisation should have been sued if Natural Fruit disagreed with their report, rather than going after Hall personally.
"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.
"This is a sad day for freedom of expression in Thailand. We fear that many other human rights defenders and victims of company abuse will be scared to silence by this ruling," Ms Vartiala said.