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3 activists are acquitted of defaming a Thai poultry company accused of violating labor laws

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BANGKOK (AP) — Three human rights activists were acquitted Tuesday of criminally defaming a Thai poultry company with social media posts that supported other activists who had accused it of abusive labor practices, according to the defendants and their lawyer.

They were charged under a law that could have led to a 42-year prison sentence if convicted.

The company, Thammakaset, said the defendants’ social media comments linked indirectly to what it called a defamatory video produced by a human rights group, Fortify Rights, containing an interview with a worker who claimed abusive working conditions. In total, the case involved 30 counts of criminal defamation.

The company’s representative, Chanchai Pheamphon, did not answer telephone calls seeking comment and did not reply to text messages.

Several Asian countries have criminal defamation laws. Critics say such defamation cases are often used by companies and politicians to silence and intimidate critics.

Since 2016, Thammakaset has initiated at least 37 lawsuits against 22 individuals, including migrant workers, human rights activists and journalists, with the majority being women, according to Fortify Rights. Nearly all were rejected by Thai courts.

Workers at Thammakaset had filed a complaint with Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission in 2016. The workers said they worked up to 20 hours a day for over 40 days without a day off, they lacked overtime compensation and their identity documents were confiscated.

In August 2016, Thailand’s Department of Labor Protection and Welfare ordered Thammakaset to pay the workers a total of 1.7 million baht ($56,000) in compensation and damages, though the money wasn’t handed over until 2019.

The court did not immediately release its ruling Tuesday. The judge found the defendants were not guilty of defamation because readers of their social media posts would have had to click on several links to reach the Fortify Rights video, the lawyer for the defendants said.

“Facing a charge of criminal defamation is really traumatizing,” said one of those acquitted, Angkhana Neelapaijit, a member of a U.N. working group on disappearances and a recipient of the Philippines’ Ramon Magsaysay Award for human rights work. “For example, you have to earn money to pay for the lawyer. You have to sacrifice your time to attend the court. You have to listen to the company attacking you when you never did anything wrong.”

“To be honest, I don’t feel happy or relieved because we endured almost four years of court proceedings only to have the cases dismissed,” said Thanaporn Saleephol, a former Fortify Rights worker. “This is actually the purpose (of abuse of the defamation law) because it aims to get the human rights defenders to waste time and energy.”

Puttanee Kangkun, the director of The Fort, which hosts activist groups in Bangkok, said she was happy about her acquittal but questioned why it took so long — 15 hearings over four years.

“There should be some mechanism to stop this intention from the company to try to stop the freedom of opinions and criticism for public benefit,” she said.

The lawyer for the three defendants, Tittasat Soodsan, said the criminal defamation law is easily used by companies to silence critics.

“Once the company initiates the prosecution, the police carry out the investigation. Essentially, the plaintiff doesn’t need to do much but shift more responsibilities onto the authorities,” Tittasat said.

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