By Amy Sawitta Lefevre
BANGKOK, Sept 2 (Reuters) - A British rights activist went on trial in Bangkok on Tuesday accused of defaming a leading Thai fruit company in the first of a series of criminal and civil lawsuits filed against him by the firm.
The trial comes as civil society groups voice increasing concern over what they say is a rise in the number of criminal defamation cases brought by the military against rights workers and journalists in an attempt to silence them.
The military has ruled in Thailand since a May 22 coup.
Tuesday's trial concerns the first of four cases brought against Andy Hall, 34, by Natural Fruit Co. Ltd, one of Thailand's largest pineapple processors and a major supplier of fruit drinks to the European market, to go to court.
Natural Fruit accuses Hall of libel in a report published in 2013 that he helped author for Finnwatch, a Finland-based watchdog group. The report pointed to alleged ill-treatment of migrant workers at a factory owned by Natural Fruit, including low pay and the confiscation of passports.
Natural Fruit denies the accusations.
The trial comes after Thailand was downgraded in June to the lowest "Tier 3" status in the U.S. State Department's 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report for not fully complying with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.
Thailand's economy is heavily dependent on foreign migrant labourers, mostly from Myanmar, who perform the jobs most Thais are unwilling to do including work as farm hands and on rickety fishing boats. Some are undocumented, or illegal, labourers, which leaves them vulnerable to forced labour and trafficking.
Tuesday's trial concerns defamation charges brought against Hall for an interview he gave to Qatar-based Al-Jazeera television based on the report alleging rights abuses at Natural Fruit. If found guilty, Hall faces up to seven years in prison.
"We're just going to fight it on the basis of public interest," Hall told reporters.
Natural Fruit did not immediately respond to a request for comment when contacted by Reuters.
Britain's Ethical Trading Initiative, an alliance of companies, trade unions and NGOs whose members include British supermarkets including Tesco and Sainsbury's, have called on the Thai pineapple industry to drop the charges against Hall.
(Additional reporting by Juarawee Kittisilpa; Editing by Nick Macfie)
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