LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A top European Union official criticised on Thursday a Thai court ruling that found a British rights activist guilty of criminal defamation for alleging labour 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 labour 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.
Officials from the Mission of Thailand to the European Union did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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 labour 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 labour, 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 labour 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 labour 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 neighbour 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 Katie Nguyen. 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 news.trust.org)