Thai rights activists hounded by punitive defamation lawsuits

It's a very effective tool to silence criticism, you think twice before speaking up, activists say
Thai rights activists hounded by punitive defamation lawsuits

Migrant workers from Myanmar gesture defiantly for the media before entering court to face defamation charges by a Thammakaset chicken farm, after they accused the company of labor abuses, at Don Muang Magistrates Court in Bangkok on Feb. 7. (Photo by Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP) reporter, Hong Kong
December 18, 2018
Rights activists continue to be harassed through the abuse of punitive defamation lawsuits in Thailand where businesses and powerful individuals often resort to such lawsuits to try and silence critics.

In the latest case, Thammakaset Co. Ltd., a company that operates chicken farms in Lopburi Province, has filed a defamation complaint at the Bangkok Criminal Court against Sutharee Wannasiri, a Thai human rights advocate, over three comments she made on Twitter more than a year ago.

In October 2017, Sutharee commented on a short video clip that related to testimonies by 14 migrant workers from Myanmar who had accused the Thai company of violating their rights. The foreign workers said Thammakaset Co., Ltd. had failed to pay their wages properly and withheld their passports to stop them from leaving.

The company, which denies the charges, has also filed a defamation complaint against Nan Win, one of the migrant workers, arguing that public airing of these allegations has damaged the company's reputation and affected its business.

If convicted of "libel" and "defamation," Sutharee could face up to six years in prison or a fine of 600,000 baht (US $18,300), or both. Nan Win could face up to four years in prison or a fine of 400,000 baht or both.

The Thai company has also filed a separate civil defamation complaint against Sutharee in Bangkok, demanding 5 million baht in damages and a public apology published in several newspapers.

In a statement, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), a worldwide rights movement, has denounced what it calls "the judicial harassment" of Sutharee and Nan Win.

FIDH has also condemned "Thammakaset's recurrent attempts to harass human rights defenders and migrant workers denouncing labor rights violations and inhibit their legitimate activities and the exercise of their right to freedom of expression."

The Thai company has filed several defamation lawsuits against people who have publicly questioned its labor practices. In 2016 Thammakaset sued Andy Hall, a prominent British labor rights advocate, over posts Hall made on social media about the 14 migrant workers' allegations of maltreatment at the company.

In 2013 Hall was sued by another Thai company, Natural Fruit, after Hall published a report detailing the company's alleged mistreatment of undocumented workers. If convicted of the four separate charges, Hall could have faced seven years in prison, but several Thai courts have since ruled in his favor.

"In cases like this the process is often the punishment," a Thailand-based foreign rights activist, who asked not to be identified, told "People have to spend large sums of money on their defense [and are often] tied up in court for several years."

Other rights activists concur.

"It's a very effective tool to silence criticism," said an animal rights activist who has been threatened with defamation lawsuits after bringing attention to the alleged maltreatment of captive animals at local zoos and amusement parks.

"You think twice before you speak up about [rights abuses]," the activist said.

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