BANGKOK – The British activist who is on trial in Thailand after uncovering alleged “modern slavery” in a local pineapple factory says he would have been murdered for speaking out if he wasn’t a foreigner.
Andy Hall is facing up to seven years in prison and fines of more than $10 million (£6.1 million), after being sued on multiple charges by the factory’s owner, Natural Fruit, which claims his report sought to damage the Thai pineapple industry.
Human Rights Watch said the charges violate Hall’s right to free speech and will have a “chilling effect“ on investigations of alleged rights abuses by Thai companies.
Hundreds of trade groups have voiced their support for Hall and over 300,000 people have signed petitions calling for Natural Fruit to drop the charges. The first of his seven trials began on Tuesday.
Hall helped to write a report detailing working conditions for migrants from nearby Myanmar, also known as Burma, at the factory, including workers being beaten, illegal low pay and bosses confiscating passports. Workers had no right to annual leave, the report said, and would often faint due to overwork and heat.
One worker lost a finger and was given no compensation. Another died from an electric shock and their family was given less than a tenth of the legal compensation owed to them, the report alleged.
Speaking to reporters after the first day of his trial, Hall said people who spoke out against companies in Thailand were routinely threatened with violence. “If you were a Thai or a Myanmar person in my situation you would have been killed many years ago,” he said.
“It’s because I’m a high-profile foreigner that I can speak out. It’s dangerous in Thailand, there are hit men everywhere and they use violence to intimidate people. They lock people up.
“If I lose this trial it will have an incredibly chilling effect on people, because they are already so scared in this kind of climate. People have seen the way I’m being treated and they won’t want to go through this.”
Scores of supporters gathered at the court in Bangkok today, including about 30 Myanmar migrant workers as well as Thai labour leaders, UN agencies, legal academics and a representative from the British embassy in Thailand.
“To have that kind of support made me really happy. I’m pleased these issues are getting attention, that’s what’s really important,” said Hall.
Hall said Natural Fruit filed a fresh, seventh charge against him on Tuesday – a civil charge for an additional 100 million Thai Baht (£1.9 million).
The first trial is for a criminal defamation charge, relating to this interview Hall gave to Al Jazeera, in which he described the conditions of migrant workers in Thailand. It will conclude on 10 September.
Hall said he felt confident the charges would be dropped: “I don’t see how this company can prove that I have bad intentions towards them.”
He continued: “I’ve been working in Thailand for 10 years and no-one’s ever threatened me with anything. So I think if I win this case it will be an inspirational moment for everybody who’s working on these issues, to make us feel that we can fight and we can stand up for people who are powerless.”
Despite only interviewing 12 workers for the Finnwatch report, Hall explained that his research team had undertaken two field trips to investigate conditions in the factory, and that believes the report reflected the situation at the time. “The interviews were just the last stage to follow up on what my team had told me. We were just reporting what the workers told us.”
Virat Piyapornpaiboon, the owner of Natural Fruit, rejected the allegations outside the court on Tuesday, telling AFP: “The report caused damage to me and my company. Any accusations were not true… If true, why are there so many workers who want to work at my factory?”
Hall, who was born in Lincolnshire, helped to write the report for Finnish NGO Finnwatch. It was published in January 2013.
Hall said that the British government is failing to help him retrieve his passport, which has been seized by the Thai court.
He said its removal was “irrational, unreasonable and unlawful” as he is a human rights defender and plans to attend the trials.
Hall wants to be able to return to Myanmar where he has lived for the last year. Before this he spent nearly a decade living in Thailand working to expose abuse of workers in the country.
“I want my passport back because the courts seized it on the basis that I was a flight risk, and I’m not. I came back to Thailand to defend my name and I’m not going to run away from this case.
“Anyone who knows anything about me knows I’m not going to run away.”
Hall says the UK embassy is “failing to implement” the UK government’s human rights defenders policy, under which he believes he is entitled to keep his passport.
“I’ve asked the British government to help and they said that the Thai government has the right to take my passport. International law says that someone can’t take your passport unless they have a reason, so I don’t agree with them. I’m not a criminal, you know.”
The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in London said the Thai court is entitled to keep possession of his passport until the cases are complete.
The FCO confirmed to Hall that he is regarded as a human rights defender, but has not replied to his further requests about his passport. – By Louise Ridley