Thailand: first Natural Fruit v. Andy Hall case draws to a close
Migrant worker rights campaigner Andy Hall has had his passport returned almost three months after it was confiscated by a Thai court, on the final day of proceedings in one of three defamation cases brought against him by pineapple processor Natural Fruit Company.
On his Twitter account, Hall described the decision as "very good news", explaining that a Prakanong court judge announced the court no longer considered the academic to be a flight risk.
The passport was given back to Hall via the British Embassy, which has had two officials observing the final day in court alongside two Finnish officials.
This first case relates to an interview with Al Jazeera journalist Wayne Hay about two existing cases that sprung up in response to the Finnwatch report "Cheap has a high price", which was co-authored by Hall who made allegations Natural Fruit employed underage labor and confiscated the passports of migrant workers from Myanmar.
If found guilty on this defamation charge, which is a criminal offense in Thailand, Hall could face up to one year in jail.
Proceedings were due to finish at 4:30pm Bangkok time, but more than two hours later they were ongoing with an extensive interview of a worker Hall described as "very brave and outspoken".
"It was great that the migrant workers got the chance to speak to the court directly. It's nice that they got to speak on their own; that's really important for me that they could tell about the conditions or what they experienced at Natural Fruit. I feel very confident," he told www.freshfruitportal.com.
In addition to worker testimonies, Hall's research team and Finnwatch executive director Sonja Vartiala took to the witness stand, along with the presidents of the Thai Tuna Industry Association and the Thai Food Processors Association.
While Hall is a lawyer who has conducted audits on a range of Thai agribusinesses in relation to their treatment of migrant workers, he said the prosecution insisted on referring to him as an English teacher during the trial.
The migrant rights activist said a ruling was expected on Oct. 29.
In other developments, a key part of the international campaign to drop charges against Hall has been to put pressure on the Thai Pineapple Industry Association (TPIA) to remove Natural Fruit head Wirat Piyapornpaiboon as its president unless the charges are dropped.
However, Hall said he met with six companies listed as TPIA members who claimed they did not belong to the organization.
"Dole Thailand, TIPCO, Siam Food Products Company Ltd., SAICO, Vita Food.Number of companies insisted they are not members of TPIA as in list," Hall said on his Twitter account.
Apart from almost 100 rights organizations, key buying groups such as the Brussels-based Business Social Compliance Initiative (BSCI), Great Britain’s Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) and Scandinavian importer group United Nordic have all expressed their concerns about the case.
General petition campaigns from the public urging Natural Fruit to drop the charges have now reached 473,075 signatures.
A source who was present at the trial told www.freshfruitportal.com the judges had acted reasonably in court, but lamented the fact defamation could be treated as a criminal offense in the Southeast Asian country.
"In Thailand they've criminalized free speech, so if you say something that is adverse to another and it causes them damage, that can be a criminal offense," the source said.
"In the marketplace of ideas, to make the best decision you need to have information, you need to have different points of view.
"If an engineer for example decided that a bridge construction was not safe and said so as a whistleblower, in Thailand he could be charged with criminal defamation and locked up."
Despite this issue, the source said the court itself demonstrated the kind of vigorous debate that was difficult to achieve in Thai society.
"In the proceedings themselves we can see a microcosm of the social phenomenon that they've criminalized, because they’re hearing evidence.
"I like the judges. I think they're conscientious and careful, and exacting in their approach."
However, research from David Streckfuss shows the number of defamation cases in Thailand has skyrocketed in recent years, and 95% of cases have resulted in convictions.
"On those statistics you wouldn't think Andy's chances were that good, but his defense counsel managed to secure an acquittal for a woman last year because the court decided that her intentions were pure; there's a little bit of a Buddhist filter over some basic Western legal concepts," the source said.
Another criminal case will begin on Sept. 15 which may carry a sentence of seven years in jail, while Hall and his legal team have requested an extension until October on a civil case which carries a potential penalty of US$10 million in damages.
Readers can visit our Andy Hall tag page for background and ongoing updates on the issue.