BANGKOK (Reuters) - A British rights activist was found guilty by a Thai court on Tuesday of criminal defamation and given a three-year suspended sentence, a move rights groups said sets a worrying precedent.
The Bangkok South Criminal Court found Andy Hall of the Migrant Worker Rights Network guilty of defaming Natural Fruit Company, a large pineapple wholesaler that supplies the European Union, over a report published in 2013 that he helped author for Finnwatch, a Finland-based watchdog group.
The report alleged labor abuses at a processing plant owned by the firm and led to several companies terminating their contracts with Natural Fruits.
The court found Hall guilty of criminal defamation and computer crimes and sentenced him to four years in prison, but reduced the sentence by one year "due to his history of doing public good and his record as a rights defender", a judge said.
The court will suspend the sentence, the judge said, meaning Hall will be free unless he breaks the law during that period.
Thailand's harsh defamation and cyber crime laws have drawn criticism from rights groups concerned about curbs on freedom of speech in the military-run country.
The court said in its ruling that Hall did not interview a large enough sample size in his report for Finnwatch.
It said the investigation by state auditors found no widespread abuses at Natural Fruit Company and that Hall did not give the company enough time to respond before submitting the report to Finnwatch.
Natural Fruit chairman Wirat Piyapornbaiboon said he was pleased with the verdict.
"Today I have fought for my honor and the honor of Thailand," Wirat told reporters.
Hall said the ruling would send "shockwaves in the international community".
"I do not feel shame or regret," Hall told reporters after the court ruling. "I am fighting for the rights of migrant workers."
He said he was free to travel now that his trial was over.
Sunai Phasuk, a Thailand researcher for Human Rights Watch, told Reuters: "The verdict against Andy Hall sends a chilling effect to the human rights community in Thailand."
Finnwatch said it would stand by Hall.
"Finnwatch was able to speak to Andy who despite this shock ruling was in relatively good spirits," Finnwatch said in a statement following the verdict.
The NGO said Hall was expected to travel to Finland on Thursday for talks with Finnish companies and media.
(Reporting by Cod Satrusayang; Editing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre, Michael Perry and Paul Tait)