By Umberto Bacchi
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A top European Union official criticized on Thursday a Thai court ruling that found a British rights activist guilty of criminal defamation for alleging labor abuses at a firm supplying pineapples to Europe.
Last month, a Bangkok court handed Andy Hall of the Migrant Worker Rights Network a three-year suspended sentence for defaming Natural Fruit Company over a 2013 report that he helped write for Finland-based campaign group Finnwatch.
The EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom said the court ruling casts a "deep shadow" over recent labor rights reforms in the Southeast Asian country.
"This verdict sends shivers through Thailand's already nervous human rights and social rights community," Malmstrom said, addressing EU lawmakers in Strasbourg.
The Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the government did not have any influence over the judicial system, which operated independently with "integrity, neutrality and transparency".
"Thailand is committed to the promotion and protection of human rights, and strictly complies with its international human rights obligations," the Ministry added in an online statement.
"Human right defenders in Thailand are also protected under Thai law in the same way as all persons in Thailand, without discrimination".
Thailand's harsh defamation laws have drawn criticism from rights groups concerned about curbs on freedom of speech in the military-run country, which has faced international pressure over labor abuses and human trafficking in its food industries.
The court said in its ruling that Hall did not interview a large enough sample size in his report for Finnwatch.
It said an 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.
Thailand, which has stepped up prosecutions and passed laws to crack down on human trafficking and forced labor, was removed from the bottom rung of the U.S. State Department's annual list of worst human trafficking offenders this year.
"This verdict casts a deep shadow over the real progress in Thailand in recent months regarding labor conditions," Malmstrom said, just before the European Parliament approved a resolution expressing regret at the Thai court verdict and urging Bangkok to do more to protect workers and activists.
"Companies in Thailand and everywhere in the world that want to sell in the EU need to understand that European consumers demand products free of labor abuse," Malmstrom said.
"Do not underestimate the EU's and the increasingly global determination in ensuring decent work in global supply chains and more transparency".
Migrant workers are the most exploited in Thailand, activists say.
The country has more than 3 million migrant workers, mostly from its poorer neighbor Myanmar, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Hall, who was in Strasbourg to lobby for EU reforms to boost transparency in the supply chain, welcomed the resolution.
"European Parliament sent strong message to the Thai Government/businesses: denial of freedom of expression could have real EU trade consequences," he wrote on Twitter.
(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)