Four Thais extradited, charged in Malaysia for crimes related to transnational trafficking syndicate

(KUALA LUMPUR, June 29, 2023)—Malaysian authorities should open a new investigation into mass graves of Rohingya discovered in Wang Kelian and prosecute Malaysian officials already found to be negligent in the detection, investigation, and prosecution of a human trafficking syndicate, Fortify Rights said today. Last week, a court in Malaysia’s northern state of Perlis charged four Thai nationals, extradited by the Thai government, with offenses under Malaysia’s Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Anti-Smuggling of Migrants Act. The charges relate to the trafficking of ethnic Rohingya from Myanmar to Malaysia in 2015.
In 2019, Fortify Rights and SUHAKAM—Malaysia’s national human rights commission—found a surge of trafficking of Rohingya to Malaysia between 2012 and 2015 to have constituted crimes against humanity. A Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) in Malaysia subsequently found in 2020 that Malaysian officials could have prevented the trafficking of Rohingya and mass graves discovered in Wang Kelian in 2015.

“While these new indictments are welcome, a big piece of the puzzle is missing – that is the prosecution of Malaysian officials in these atrocity crimes,” said Patrick Phongsathorn, Senior Advocacy Specialist at Fortify Rights. “No Malaysian official has ever faced formal charges for crimes related to the mass trafficking of Rohingya refugees to Malaysia. This is despite evidence of at least criminal negligence.”

In a statement issued Thursday, Malaysia’s Home Affairs Ministry noted that the four men extradited to Malaysia are among ten individuals named in an extradition request made by Malaysian authorities to their Thai counterparts in January 2017. The men—reported to be Jehpa Lapi-e, 56, Somphon A-dam, 51, Arun Kaeofainok, 30, and Amree Nesalaeh, 58—face criminal charges for their suspected involvement in a transnational criminal syndicate that trafficked an estimated 170,000 women, men, and children from Myanmar and Bangladesh to Malaysia via southern Thailand between 2012 and 2015.

Drawing on a multi-year investigation and more than 270 accounts from survivors and other eyewitnesses, a 121-page report in 2019 by Fortify Rights and SUHAKAM documents grave human rights violations against Rohingya trafficked from Myanmar and Bangladesh to Malaysia from 2012 to 2015. Fortify Rights and SUHAKAM uncovered widespread and systematic abuses, including imprisonment, torture, extortion, death by deprivation, rape, and killings on land and at sea. The report also found that Malaysian authorities obstructed justice by destroying evidence and delaying the exhumation of victims’ bodies. Some of these findings were backed up by the final report of the RCI established by the Malaysian government in 2019 to investigate and seek accountability for the crimes documented by Fortify Rights and SUHAKAM.

In July 2022, Fortify Rights discovered that the Home Affairs Ministry had quietly released the RCI’s final report on its website. At the time of writing, a Bahasa Malaysia version of the report remains on the ministry’s website. An English-language version of the report was available briefly but was removed from the website in early September. Both versions are on file with Fortify Rights.

The RCI report finds that Malaysian officials could have prevented the torture and death of Rohingya and Bangladeshi trafficking victims and that official negligence hindered the detection and proper investigation of a human trafficking syndicate responsible for atrocity crimes against Rohingya and others. In one instance detailed in the RCI’s report, former Inspector-General of Police Khalid bin Abu Bakar deliberately delayed the exhumation of human remains found in Wang Kelian for more than five months after the initial discovery. As a result, forensic experts established the cause of death for only two of the 114 victims eventually exhumed, significantly inhibiting accountability efforts.

Fortify Rights also documented survivor testimonies indicating government officials’ complicity in the trafficking syndicate.

In 2017, Thailand convicted 62 defendants, including a senior army general and eight other Thai government officials, for crimes related to the trafficking of Rohingya. Since 2015, Malaysian courts convicted only four non-Malaysian persons of trafficking-related offenses connected to mass graves discovered at Wang Kelian.

Malaysia’s new Independent Police Conduct Commission (IPCC) should launch an investigation into official criminal negligence in Wang Kelian, Fortify Rights said today.

The law establishing the IPCC, the Independent Police Conduct Commission Act 2022, will come into effect on July 1. The IPCC’s responsibilities include promoting integrity within the police force, protecting the interests of the public, addressing misconduct, and handling individual complaints against police officers. Furthermore, as per section 5 of the IPCC Act, the new commission has powers to “do all things necessary” in the fulfillment of its functions, including conducting visits to police stations, collecting evidence of misconduct, and making “recommendation[s] for disciplinary action against any misconduct committed by any member of the police force to the Police Force Commission.”

Malaysian civil society has expressed concern that the IPCC will be unable to ensure impartiality and accountability in investigations of police wrongdoing.

In 2007, Malaysia passed the Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Smuggling of Migrants Act, which criminalizes human trafficking and details the investigative duties of enforcement officers. The Malaysia Penal Code also establishes criminal penalties for official negligence under sections 201, 217, and 218.

The U.S. State Department placed Malaysia on the “Tier 2 Watch List” in this year’s annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report – an improvement on 2022’s report, which placed Malaysia on the lowest possible ranking of Tier 3 for a second consecutive year. Despite reported improvements in its handling of human trafficking, the 2023 TIP report notes that the Government of Malaysia “did not meet the minimum standards [for the elimination of human trafficking] in several key areas,” and the report goes on to recommend that the government “increase efforts to investigate and prosecute trafficking cases…including those involving complicit officials.” The TIP report also notes there continues to be trafficking of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh to Malaysia.

“Survivors of these horrors and their families deserve justice and accountability,” said Patrick Phongsathorn. “If the Government of Malaysia wants to be taken off the Watch List in next year’s TIP report, opening an investigation into official criminal negligence in the handling of the Wang Kelian tragedy would be a good place to start.”

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