BANGKOK (Reuters) - A Thai court on Wednesday dismissed on a technicality a defamation case brought against a British human rights activist by a Thai fruit company.
The case is the first of a series of criminal and civil lawsuits filed against rights activist Andy Hall, 34, by Natural Fruit Co. Ltd.
The firm, a pineapple wholesaler that supplies to the European Union, accused Hall of libel over a report published in 2013 that he helped author for Finnwatch, a Finland-based watchdog group.
The report “Cheap Has a High Price” pointed to alleged ill-treatment of migrant workers at a factory owned by the firm, including low pay and the confiscation of workers’ passports. Natural Fruit has denied the accusations.
Natural Fruit is Thailand’s biggest producer of canned pineapples and is owned by Virat Piyapornpaiboon.
Hall’s trial concerned defamation charges brought by Natural Fruit against him for an interview he gave to Qatar-based Al-Jazeera television, while he was n Myanmar, based on the report.
“Hall gave the interview outside of the Kingdom of Thailand therefore the investigation into the case had to include a team of police and officials from the attorney-general’s office,” a judge said in passing the verdict.
“However, there was only one police officer at the time of his interrogation therefore we deem the investigation to be incomplete.”
The verdict comes as civil society groups voice increasing concern over the treatment of migrant workers in Thailand and a rise in the number of criminal defamation cases brought by the military against rights workers and journalists.
The military, which ousted an elected government and took power in May, has no connection to the cases against Hall.
Speaking before the trial, Hall said he was hopeful the case would be dismissed.
“Based on the witness line-up that we had I felt the evidence we presented was very strong and showed that I never had intent to defame,” Hall told Reuters.
“We are very confident.”
Sonja Vartiala, executive director of Finnwatch, said in an emailed statement: “We are relieved and glad that justice has prevailed in this case.”
A lawyer for Natural Fruit said that the firm would appeal.
“We accept the court verdict today,” Natural Fruit lawyer Somsak Torugsa told reporters. “But we will appeal and this will need to be done within 30 days.”
A second, $10 million civil defamation case brought by Natural Fruit against Hall will begin on Thursday.
Thailand is Southeast Asia’s third-biggest importer of migrant labor after Singapore and Malaysia.
Workers from neighboring Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar often do jobs that most Thais are unwilling to do such as farm hands, fishermen, construction workers and domestic helpers.
Determining the number of migrant workers in Thailand is difficult as there is no official data but most rights groups estimate there are between 2 and 3 million of them, most undocumented, which leaves them vulnerable to abuse.
Additional reporting by Juarawee Kittisilpa; Editing by Robert Birsel