Pleading in the Thailand courthouse, Natural Fruit Company director Wirat Piyapornpaiboon said Andy Hall had ruined his business, and he wanted the academic in prison. The trial against the Finnwatch researcher is on a collision course with different cultures, human rights and economic interests. Natural Fruit has suffered from a loss in sales, and wants to use the courts as a tool to get back at Andy and our NGO. No one seems to benefit from the court case, right?

I arrived in the Bangkok Prakanong courthouse together with Andy and our lawyers on Tuesday, Sept. 9. International news agencies such as BBC, Reuters, AFP, AP and the local Thai media wanted to film and interview Andy who was taken to court. The other party in the case, Natural Fruit's elderly owner Wirat, gave an interview too, telling the BBC that he was looking for compensation for his suffering; no matter who was right or wrong. Reportedly, he also shouted in the courthouse yard that he would put Andy in prison because Andy had ruined his life.

Wirat may not have heard the old proverb, 'if you want to get out of a hole, stop digging'. Despite his desperate pleas, defensive statements for Natural Fruit have not been seen in the international media. Perhaps this is because of the large number of reports, newspaper stories and video interviews that support the Finnwatch report's findings. On top of this, Natural Fruit has even refused to let objective third party auditors in the factory.

Wirat has driven himself into a corner from which he cannot escape. If Andy wins the court case, Wirat will lose face forever. If Andy loses, the international media and civil society will judge the legal process and the whole of Thailand will lose face. No wonder the companies, NGOs, the trade union movement and Thai industry organizations have urged Natural Fruit to give up the harmful court case.

I walked past Wirat in the courtroom hallways many times smiling politely at him. We do not have the same language and culture and our vision of the world is certainly very different. I do not understand him, and I think that he does not understand me either. I'm sure he will not give up until he has turned the last stone on the road to vengeance. On the first day in court Andy handed me a handwritten note, stating that Natural Fruit had filed a new legal action against him in Prakanong civil court, demanding 100 million baht (US$3 million) in compensation. Claims for compensation amount to a record high of 400 million baht (US$12 milion) already.

The trial started with the prosecution witnesses. Hours in the court room were definitely not boring. Right at the beginning of the trial, the judge harshly scolded the first witness, the Natural Fruit director, and told him to go wash his hands because he had scribbled notes on them. Later, the judge threatened the director with punishment if he did not correct errors in his statement about the factory's sales figures and volumes.

In addition to Natural Fruit management, the prosecution also called on Thai factory managers, social security officers, factory inspectors and the local police to testify on behalf of Natural Fruit. Surprisingly, every one of them seemed to think that Natural Fruit is quite an exemplary pineapple factory.

Trial judges seemed to do their best and put pressure on witnesses by asking razor-sharp questions. The legal process itself, however, was like Franz Kafka's nightmare. The prosecution witnesses were not known to the defense before they were called to the witness stand, and any statements from witnesses had not been obtained in advance so the defence didn't know what they were going to say. Also, none of the Thai language documents had been provided to the defense in advance. The Defense therefore, had to operate without advanced preparation. If the Thai judiciary works like this under international attention and observers sitting in the court hall, I can only guess what kind of justice is distributed for ordinary common people or migrant workers. The Finnish Embassy in Bangkok participated in the trial hearings on four days. Representatives from the British embassy and the Australian Embassy also visited the court. In the courtroom, representatives from the International Organization for Migration and the International Labour Organization (ILO) also appeared.

In addition, International trade unions sent their own observers to the trial. During the examination Natural Fruit's lawyer focused on the word "hell". Andy Hall had used this term when giving an interview to Al Jazeera in 2013, saying, "Factory workers told me that working there was like hell." All the witnesses were asked a number of times what hell was. At times it was difficult to hold back the laughter when the witnesses testified different views of hell; for some, it was a hot spot of terrible suffering, while others said it was something you feel inside. The prosecutor brought a photocopy of the dictionary to the justice, where the hell was defined with a few sentences referring to different kinds of horrors. I wonder what the comparative religious researchers back home would think about this, I laughed.

My smile froze, however, and quickly. The trial was interrupted from time to time when prisoners in orange-brown uniforms were brought in from the ground floor of the courthouse wearing shackles on their feet. At that point, everyone realized that the barefoot prisoner in the degrading outfit could be Andy. Foolish debate about the word "hell" was used as a weapon in the process of trying to destroy the life of an activist.

Investigative journalism and critical research are a rare phenomenon in Thailand, and judicial processes against activists are common. In the court we heard several speeches from different research traditions. The prosecution called a witness, an academic professor, who said that all research should be quantitative and factories researched should never be revealed. He said if the factory does not cooperate with the researcher, the researcher must simply look for a new factory for examination.

Western researchers and journalists that observed the trial exchanged amazed glances with each other.

The defense witnesses were then able to testify on Friday, Sept. 5.

The defense called journalist Wayne Hay from New Zealand to testify and he told the court about the basic principles of journalism, the story-making stages and the purpose of different interviews and perspectives. He explained that Andy Hall just gave an interview to Al Jazeera and was not responsible for the story or Wayne Hay's own parts in it – the prosecution had tried to put Wayne Hay's own words into the mouth of Andy.

The defence also heard a testimony from a Mahidol University professor who shed light on a variety of research traditions. She explained the fact that the choice of research methods depended on the focus and purpose of the research. When studying forced labor, human trafficking or corruption you can rarely use positivistic methods from natural science.

My witness testimony and cross-examination went on for three hours, and I explained, among other things, the theoretical background of Finnwatch's research and its ethical principles. What is freedom of expression? How do you promote democracy, human rights and open society? Is it fair to publish research contrary to the wishes of the investigated factory?

As a witness, the defense also heard representatives from the Thai pineapple and tuna industries. UNICORD-factory manager Chanintr told of his experiences from the Finnwatch research, and explained that the dialogue with Finnwatch had helped his company to understand international sustainability standards and the working conditions of migrant workers. The prosecutor asked, if Finnwatch also described UNICORD factories to be like hell.

"No," Chanintr replied, "but we are also accused of using child labor."

The last day of the trial was most exciting, because the last witness was a former employee from Natural Fruit. In an electric atmosphere this very brave Burmese young man said that he had been working in the factory for years without papers and receiving wages below the minimum wage and that unlawful deductions were made from his salary. He testified without hesitation that the factory hired dozens of children and commissions for long hours of overtime that were not voluntary. The last few years he had been driving a truck for the company without driver's license; he said this was not a problem as he could get through the police checks without fines because he just told the police that he works in Natural Fruit. The judges spent many hours questioning the witness, and the last day of the trial ended up finishing at 7pm.

Who will win the trial then? In light of the evidence it would be strange if Andy would be convicted in any of the three remaining cases.

Although the judgment would come, he would have no money to pay even a fraction of the compensation to Natural Fruit. Natural Fruit and the Thai pineapple industry have already received huge amount of negative international attention. Protest waves would likely increase further if Andy were to be judged. Finnwatch has used tens of thousands of euros for the trial and the process will have a negative impact on our and Andy's work for years. So everyone loses, right?

No way. Surprisingly, the sales volumes of the infamous Natural Fruit increased in 2013, which means that the juice traders bought more products produced by migrant workers from Natural Fruit. In court, Wirat testified that the buyers are buying more and more juice, but require a cheaper price because of the lawsuit and the Finnwatch report. The argument about rising sales volumes was supported by Natural Fruit's financial statements.

The international juice industry uses human rights violations and harassment of activists in bargaining for the same products at ever lower prices. Based on our two reports on natural Fruit's labour conditions, I already know who is ultimately paying the price for the tightening margins.

I can only wonder how the juice traders sleep at night.

 

The original article can be found here >>

 

 

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