British activist found guilty in Thai defamation trial

British labour activist Andy Hall speaks to the media as he arrives at the Bangkok South Criminal Court in Bangkok on September 20, 2016. - AFP

Bangkok (AFP) - A British activist was found guilty of criminal defamation and breaching Thailand's strict computer laws and given a three-year suspended jail sentence, his lawyer said on Tuesday, over a report on labour abuses in the kingdom's lucrative fruit sector.

Andy Hall, who lives in Thailand, has faced a cascade of legal actions for co-authoring a 2013 report on a Natural Fruit factory in the south of the country, alleging poor working conditions, low wages and child labour.

Natural Fruit, a major supplier to the European drink market, brought the action against Hall.

The activist "was found guilty of defamation and under the computer crime act... the court sentenced him to four years in jail, reduced to three," his lawyer Nakhon Chomphuchat told AFP after the verdict, adding that the sentence was suspended.

Rights groups say criminal defamation and computer misuse laws are routinely used to stifle investigative work.

The contentious report -- "Cheap Has a High Price" -- was published by the Finnish civil rights group Finnwatch.

It heaped pressure on Thailand's food industry, which has faced years of allegations of mistreatment of its mainly migrant labour force.

Natural Fruit has denied the allegations in the report and has also launched a civil case seeking $10 million in damages.

Hall, who said he will appeal the verdict, stands by his research and has accused the company of trying to detract from the report's damning findings through legal action.

Speaking after the trial on Tuesday, Hall said the verdict "shows people are not free or at liberty to do this kind of research".

"There's a huge problem with human trafficking in Thailand. There's a huge problem with labour exploitation," added the activist, who in recent years has also drawn attention to abuses in Thailand's shady fishing and poultry sectors.

The president of Natural Fruit was in unforgiving mood after the ruling.

"No foreigner should think they have power above Thai sovereignty," said company president Wirat Piyapornpaiboon.

Hall was acquitted by a court last year on a separate defamation charge pursued by Thailand's Attorney General.

Finnwatch argue that their organisation should have been sued if Natural Fruit disagreed with their report rather than going after Hall personally.

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