Only 12 of 500 Witnesses Receiving Protection, Others Detained
(BANGKOK, December 24, 2015)— Witnesses involved in a high-profile human trafficking trial are under threat and are not receiving adequate protections in Thailand, Fortify Rights said today. Key witnesses have been forced into hiding while others are confined in shelters.
The trial is scheduled to resume today and involves 91 defendants, including high-level government officials accused of trafficking more than 100 ethnic Rohingya Muslims and Bangladeshis through illicit camps in Thailand.
Members of Thailand’s state security forces as well as suspected members of a transnational criminal syndicate have threatened or intimidated witnesses, investigators, and other individuals involved in the case.
At least two witnesses have gone into hiding out of fear for their lives, and others told Fortify Rights that they are considering going into hiding due to security concerns.
“Witnesses are key to ensuring justice is served in this case. Their security should be the utmost concern to the Thai authorities,” said Amy Smith, Executive Director of Fortify Rights. “Powerful actors are trying to muzzle witnesses and keep them in fear for their lives.”
Officials involved in the case confirmed that witnesses are being threatened to not testify in this case and that only 12 witnesses, of the approximately 500 scheduled to testify, are receiving formal protection under the Ministry of Justice.
The Ministry of Justice, which oversees witness protection in Thailand, is currently controlled by the Thai military.
Witnesses under threat in this case are expected to testify against officials of Thailand’s Army, Navy, Police, and the Internal Security Operation Command—an agency under the Office of the Prime Minister devoted to matters of national security—as well as local government officials and civilians.
“Mohammed Razam”—not his real name—is a Rohingya man and longtime legal resident of Thailand, who is now in hiding after military officials and suspected functionaries of human traffickers allegedly threatened him. Mohammed Razam has intimate knowledge of the trafficking of Rohingya refugees in Thailand and the alleged perpetrators, and he supported the police investigation into the trafficking networks.
“I was threatened to leave the country, and I was told to stay out of the trafficking case,” he told Fortify Rights. He told Fortify Rights that a man who identified himself as a military officer said, “If next time you do not come to meet with me when I demand, you would surely be gunned down.”
Fortify Rights recently reported that Police Major General Praween Pongsirin, the chief investigator in the case, was forced into exile and is seeking asylum in Australia after exposing high-level government involvement in human trafficking.
“If I was not involved in the human trafficking investigation, I’d be fine…but because of my work on this case, I have too many enemies,” Paween told Fortify Rights on November 24. “There was no support or protection for us, even after we came under threat.”
The trial began in Bangkok Criminal Court on November 10, 2015. It was then transferred from Nathawee Provincial Court to Bangkok Criminal Court in part because of threats and intimidation against witnesses, according to the prosecution. The Nathawee Provincial Court is scheduled to hear at least two cases involving criminal charges against perpetrators accused of threatening witnesses in this case.
Under Thailand’s Witness Protection Law, witnesses and their families can submit a petition for protection to the Witness Protection Office under the Department of Rights and Liberties, which is under the Ministry of Justice. In certain cases, such as those involving organized crime, the investigator or prosecutors may submit petitions for protection for witnesses.
International law binding on Thailand provides for witness protection. Article 13 of the Convention Against Torture requires state parties “to ensure that the complainant and witnesses are protected against all ill-treatment or intimidation as a consequence of his [or her] complaint or any evidence given.” The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, and the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, all to which Thailand is state party, likewise provide for witness protection.
Court officials and police have told Fortify Rights that the trial could take up to two years, which would potentially violate due process standards and heighten risks for witnesses.
Most of the witnesses in the case are survivors of human trafficking, including Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar and Bangladesh, and are confined to shelters operated by the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security. Thai government officials told Fortify Rights that Rohingya survivors of human trafficking must remain in the shelters until they are resettled to a third country.
The process of resettlement may take several years and would exclude those that do not meet the eligibility requirements. Witnesses and survivors being held in shelters are denied freedom of movement and the right to liberty. They are at risk of indefinite or prolonged detention.
International law forbids arbitrary and indefinite detention, including of non-nationals. The right to liberty is a basic human right protected by Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. According to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, a state may only restrict the right to liberty of migrants in exceptional situations and based on a case-by-case assessment of the individual concerned. Such assessment should consider the necessity and appropriateness of any restriction of liberty, including whether it is proportionate to the objective to be achieved.
“Confining people to shelters is not the same as protection,” said Amy Smith. “Thai authorities are subjecting survivors of trafficking to further abuses, while expecting the international community to praise them for it. It doesn’t work that way. If Thailand wants to combat human trafficking, it should prioritize protection for survivors.”
The defendants in this case are accused of involvement in transporting people from Myanmar and Bangladesh to Thailand, holding them for ransom under abusive conditions, and facilitating their onward movement to Malaysia. They face charges for violating the 2013 Anti-Participation in Organized Crime Act, the 2008 Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act, the 1979 Immigration Act, the 1947 Firearms, Ammunition, Explosive Articles and Fireworks and Imitation of Firearms Act, and the Criminal Code, which could result in a maximum sentence of death or life imprisonment. The trial resumed December 24 to 25. It is scheduled to continue January 7 to 8.
Transnational criminal syndicates have trafficked at least tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar and Bangladesh as well as Bangladeshi nationals through Thailand for several years. The evidence in this case includes 80 Rohingya and Bangladeshi survivors of human trafficking and 36 unidentified bodies exhumed from mass graves near human trafficking jungle camps uncovered by Thai authorities on May 1, 2015.