Thai appeals court dismisses case against British activist

FILE - In this Nov. 3, 2016, file photo, British labor rights activist Andy Hall talks to reporters at the Supreme Court in Bangkok. A Thai court of appeal dismissed criminal defamation charges against Hall who was sued by a fruit packaging company after he alleged human rights violations at its factory. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit, File)

BANGKOK — A Thai appeals court on Thursday vindicated a British labor rights activist entangled in a years-long legal confrontation with a fruit-packing company after he publicized alleged human rights violations at its factory.

The legal victory for Andy Hall was welcomed by Amnesty International but is not necessarily the end of protracted court battles that forced him to leave Thailand in 2016.

A criminal defamation and other cases against Hall stemmed from a 2013 report he researched for Finnish consumer organization Finnwatch that alleged labor abuses at Natural Fruit's pineapple canning operation. It employed migrant workers from Myanmar who said the company abused them and broke labor regulations.

Sunya Joongdee, a lawyer for Hall, said Thursday's court ruling dismissed the criminal defamation case, which also resulted in the collapse of a case under Thailand's computer crimes law. It outlaws publishing what is deemed false information online.

He said the court accepted that Hall's interviews with migrant workers revealed allegations of rights violations that should be made public. Hall was found guilty of criminal defamation in 2016, fined and given a suspended prison sentence.

Natural Fruit, owned by businessman Wirat Piyapornpaiboon, can appeal to the Supreme Court. Other cases brought by both sides as the legal battle escalated are still before the courts.

On Twitter, Hall said he had previously lost hope of justice but now a "flame was reignited in my heart."

"There is still the possibility that today's verdict could lead in some way to peace and reconciliation," he said.

Amnesty International's Thailand campaigner, Katherine Gerson, said the ruling should be followed with repeal of the criminal defamation law to prevent companies using the courts to harass activists who campaign against abusive corporate practices.

"This successful appeal is very welcome, and it underlines how the original conviction against Andy Hall was an abuse of justice that should never have been allowed," she said in a statement.

Finnwatch also welcomed the ruling. Its executive director, Sonja Vartiala, said the appeal court's decision was a "much needed acknowledgement" that Hall's work researching allegations of human rights abuses against migrant workers was legitimate and in the public interest.

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