BANGKOK — A Thai court on Wednesday dismissed the first of four criminal and civil defamation cases filed against a British human rights activist by a Thai fruit processing company accused of mistreating migrant workers.
The activist, Andy Hall, still faces charges in three other separate cases. The next trial begins Thursday.
Hall's legal troubles began after the activist helped author a report last year for the Finland-based watchdog Finnwatch that detailed what it said were poor labor conditions in seafood and pineapple export companies in Thailand. The report investigated a factory owned by Natural Fruit that employed hundreds of migrants from neighboring Myanmar, and alleged the company illegally confiscated passports, paid below minimum wage and overworked staff in sweltering conditions so hot that heat strokes were common. Natural Fruit disputes the accusations.
The first case related to defamation charges for an interview that Hall gave to Qatar-based Al-Jazeera television on the subject. On Wednesday, a judge said the case was dismissed because the interview took place in Myanmar and the office of Thailand's attorney general was not involved into the investigation as required by law.
Sonja Vartiala, the executive director of Finnwatch, said she was "relieved and glad that justice has prevailed," but said Hall still faces up to seven years in jail and fines totaling $14 million if found guilty in the remaining cases. He is currently out on bail in Thailand.
"Finnwatch demands Natural Fruit now drop all the charges against Andy Hall. Instead of allowing companies to bring human rights activists to court, Thailand needs to prosecute companies like Natural Fruit, who are violating labour rights," Vartiala said.
Hall has worked in Thailand for years and is an outspoken activist on migrant issues. Millions of impoverished migrants, largely from Myanmar and Cambodia, work in Thailand. Some do not have legal papers, and many work low-skilled jobs for long hours at pay below their Thai counterparts. They typically lack health and social security benefits.
The trial comes after the United States demoted Thailand earlier this year to the lowest level in its annual rankings of governments' anti-human trafficking efforts, principally over its failures to do enough to stop abusive practices in the Thai seafood industry.
Associated Press writer Todd Pitman contributed to this report.