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 EU, over a report published in 2013 that he helped author for Finnwatch, a Finland-based watchdog group.
The report alleged labor abuses detailed 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 Hall to four years in prison but it 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 in his report for Finnwatch did not interview a large enough sample size.
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.
Hall was not immediately available to comment.
"The verdict against Andy Hall sends a chilling effect to the human rights community in Thailand," Sunai Phasuk, a Thailand researcher for Human Rights Watch told Reuters.
Finnwatch said it would continue to 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 added that Hall is expected to travel to Finland on Thursday for talks with Finnish companies and media.
(Reporting by Cod Satrusayang; Editing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and)