BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Prominent British rights activist Andy Hall left Thailand early on Monday, saying he feared for his safety amid legal problems and growing harassment from companies that have been "irrational, vindictive and aggressive".
Hall, who has worked on the rights of migrant workers in Thailand for 11 years, has recently faced defamation lawsuits by companies he has accused of labour violations.
"The situation is not good right now," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone on Sunday before his flight, speaking from Mahachai, a town near Bangkok and the centre of Thailand's seafood processing industry.
"It's rapidly deteriorating. It doesn't feel safe. There are people who are intent on wearing me down. I've worked with so many companies in Thailand, and it's rare to have a company that is so irrational and so vindictive. It's enough to wear anyone down."
In September, Hall was handed a suspended three-year jail term and fined 150,000 baht ($4,300) for criminally defaming Natural Fruit Company, a pineapple wholesaler that supplies the European Union.
Rights groups called the verdict an alarming precedent in the fight against labour exploitation.
Emboldened by the ruling, a chicken farmer who lost his EU contracts and had to shut down his 1.6 million-chicken operation after Hall exposed alleged labour violations on one of his three farms, said he planned to pursue his own defamation case and has hired the Natural Fruit lawyer.
Supported by Hall, 14 chicken farm workers had sued the farmer in September, alleging forced overtime, unlawful salary deductions, confiscation of their passports and limited freedom of movement. They demanded $1.3 million in compensation and civil damages.
Chicken farmer Chanchai Pheamphon, owner of Thammakaset farms, countered with defamation lawsuits filed in October against the 14 migrant workers, and another one against Hall, filed last week at the Bangkok South Criminal Court, which handed down the guilty verdict in September.
"I didn't know he was going to flee. I already filed the lawsuit last week," Chanchai said by telephone. "Everyone who has made me lose my business - I have sued them all."
Asked how many lawsuits he had filed, he said: "Many - a lot."
Thailand, one of the world's key food exporters, employs an estimated 3 million migrant workers, mostly from Myanmar. Many migrants face labour violations, such as unpaid wages, confiscated travel documents and limited freedom of movement.
Hall's legal problems began after he conducted research for Helsinki-based Finnwatch for a 2013 report called "Cheap has a high price". A company in the report, Natural Fruit, filed four defamation cases against Hall.
One case related to an interview Hall gave to Al Jazeera in Myanmar in 2013 about the legal fallout of the Finnwatch report. A court in Bangkok dismissed the charges, but Thailand's attorney general and Natural Fruit appealed.
The Supreme Court on Thursday rejected that appeal. The verdict had originally been scheduled to be read on Nov. 25, but Hall said he requested the court to move the date forward because of his increasingly precarious situation.
"It's time for the good companies, the good actors, to speak to these people. I work with a lot of good companies ... I fear for my safety because of the unstable situation. I don't want to be here another three weeks," he said.
"My work is not productive at the moment. It's like walking on broken glass. I don't feel secure to be working here. Why would you want to put yourself in this situation where you're just being worn down and stuck in the court system?"
Chanchai, the chicken farmer, took issue with Hall's fear for his safety and said he was pursuing justice strictly through the courts.
"Using the law doesn't make anyone unsafe," Chanchai said.
"I had to sue in order to reveal the truth, so the world can see whether the things they claimed were true or false. If he's confident that the things he said were true, then he has to fight this in the court. Don't say that you've been threatened and that my country is unsafe."
Kriboon Suadsong, a senior police official who met with Hall last Wednesday to discuss the case of the chicken farm in Lop Buri province, said the government was prepared to work with him to resolve the issues.
"The government has worked continuously to solve the problems of human trafficking," said Kriboon, head of management for the anti-human trafficking centre of the Royal Thai Police.
"In the case from Lop Buri, we were planning to go there to see what problems there were, in order to resolve the issues, improve relations and work more closely together. If Andy were here, I would have invited him to go with us."
Because of the cases, Hall has had his travel restricted since June 2014 and his passport confiscated by two different courts. He was unable to live outside Thailand and had to ask the court's permission each time he left the country.
"You're at the whim of this corrupt, mafia system, and you can't get out of it ... I've done everything I'm legally obliged to do, and now is the time to step away and see if this will get better."
He said once the chicken farmer filed criminal defamation charges against him, he would be subject to travel restrictions again - another reason to leave now.
"The reason I'm leaving is they said in court they're going to file a new criminal case against me, because it comes with all the restrictions – I'm not willing to be subjected to that criminal process again, and I'm also leaving because of the security issues."
Meanwhile, he said there had been a clear impact on civil society and freedom of speech, as many watchdogs and activists have warned.
"No one dares to say anything about anyone doing anything wrong in Thailand. They just say it's 'a factory', or 'a company' in Thailand," he said.
"I want to come back, but it's a matter of do I have enough support and encouragement to come back? Now I feel very uncomfortable," he said.
Hall left on a Paris-bound flight that departed from Bangkok shortly after midnight on Monday. He has not specified a return date.
Chicken farmer Chanchai said he hoped Hall would return for the court cases.
"If you come back and fight, if what you said is true, then I'll lose. If it's not true, you'll lose."
Reporting by Alisa Tang @alisatang, editing by Timothy Large. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories