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Thai court finds British activist guilty of defamation

Associated Press Associated Press 20/09/2016 By NATNICHA CHUWIRUCH, Associated Press
British human rights activist Andy Hall arrives at the Bangkok South Criminal Court for his verdict on criminal and civil defamation cases filed against him in Bangkok, Thailand, Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2016. Bangkok South Criminal Court found Hall guilty Tuesday of criminal defamation against Natural Fruit Company Ltd. in connection with a report he researched for the Finnish consumer agency Finnwatch that alleged labor abuses at the company's facilities. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit) © The Associated Press British human rights activist Andy Hall arrives at the Bangkok South Criminal Court for his verdict on criminal and civil defamation cases filed against him in Bangkok, Thailand, Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2016. Bangkok South Criminal Court found Hall guilty Tuesday of criminal defamation against Natural Fruit Company Ltd. in connection with a report he researched for the Finnish consumer agency Finnwatch that alleged labor abuses at the company's facilities. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

BANGKOK — A Thai court found a British labor activist guilty Tuesday of defaming a fruit canning company, and gave him a suspended prison sentence in a case that has raised serious concerns among human rights workers and free speech advocates.

The Bangkok South Criminal Court found Andy Hall guilty of criminal defamation against Natural Fruit Company Ltd. in connection with a 2013 report he researched for the Finnish consumer organization Finnwatch that alleged labor abuses at the company's facilities.

The case has underlined complaints by critics that Thailand's punitive criminal defamation laws can be used to silence whistle-blowers and social critics. The law carried a maximum penalty of seven years imprisonment.

Hall has been active for several years in Thailand in labor rights advocacy, especially involving migrant workers, who lack protections both in practice and under the law.

He was also found guilty of violating the Computer Crimes Act because the information was posted on the internet.

Hall was given a suspended sentence of three years with a probationary period of two years, and a fine of 150,000 baht ($4,300). He said he will appeal the ruling. He was allowed to go free after his fine was paid.

Two civil suits by the company against him are pending, as is an appeal against his acquittal on a previous criminal defamation charge.

"I don't feel any shame, I don't feel any regret. But I feel it is an injustice, what's happened here today," Hall said. "I respect the decision of the court, but I feel real injustice, not for me, it's not about me, this case was never about me, it was never about Andy Hall doing research about migrant workers. It was about a human rights activist doing research for the public interest."

The court originally sentenced Hall to four years in prison and a 200,000 baht ($5,715) fine, but reduced the sentence because he cooperated with the proceedings and had no prior criminal record.

Lawyers and right groups have long been critical of Thailand's criminal defamation law, which is seen as inhibiting free speech. In a statement earlier this week, Amnesty International called on Thai authorities to remove criminal penalties for defamation and "ensure that such charges are not used to restrict the right to freedom of expression."

Sonja Vartiala, executive director of Finnwatch, said her organization was "shocked by today's verdict."

"The report was authored and published by Finnwatch; we take full responsibility for it," Vartiala said. "Andy has been made a scapegoat in order to stifle other voices that speak out legitimately in support of migrant worker rights."

"This is a sad day for freedom of expression in Thailand," Vartiala said. "We fear that many other human rights defenders and victims of company abuse will be scared to silence by this ruling."

Finnwatch was not sued, nor was the Al Jazeera news network, to whom Hall gave an interview that was the basis for part of the cases against him.

Virat Piyapornpaiboon, the owner of Natural Fruit, said justice was done.

"I think that it's not important whether he goes to jail or not, but what's important is whether or not what he said was true," Virat said. "This is proof that no matter who you are, if you are not just and you make up stories and cause damage to others, you must be punished."

Britain's Foreign Office expressed its concern in a statement issued after the verdict.

"The UK supports the right of Human Rights Defenders to raise concerns about human rights violations without fear of reprisals or legal action to prevent public participation," it said. "We will be raising his case with the Thai authorities and we are ready to provide support to Mr. Hall if requested."

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