Verdict expected tomorrow in Thailand’s largest-ever human trafficking trial

(BANGOK, July 18, 2017)—Thailand should ensure perpetrators and accomplices involved in trafficking Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshi nationals are held to account, said Fortify Rights today. The Criminal Court Division for Human Trafficking in Bangkok is scheduled to begin delivering verdicts in the country’s largest-ever mass human trafficking trial tomorrow, July 19.

While the trial marks an unprecedented effort by Thai authorities to hold perpetrators of human trafficking accountable, the trial was beset by unchecked threats against witnesses, interpreters, and police investigators, Fortify Rights said. Fortify Rights also documented how Thai authorities detained ethnic-Rohingya witnesses in closed-door shelters—in violation of their right to liberty—and allegedly physically assaulted witnesses in the trial. 

“This may be the end of an important and unprecedented trial, but it’s been a rocky road, and it’s not ‘case-closed’ for survivors of human trafficking here,” said Amy Smith, Executive Director of Fortify Rights. “Thailand has a long way to go to ensure justice for thousands who were exploited, tortured, and killed by human traffickers during the last several years.”

One hundred and three defendants—including 21 government officials—accused of trafficking ethnic Rohingya and Bangladeshi nationals from Myanmar and Bangladesh in 2015 are on trial. Some face a sentence of up to life imprisonment if convicted. Those convicted of murder in the context of trafficking face a possible death sentence.

The authorities arrested only 103 suspects out of 153 who were named on official arrest warrants issued in connection with the investigation, said Fortify Rights.

Defendants are charged with a variety of crimes, including human trafficking, murder, the unlawful use of firearms or other weapons, holding people for ransom, and other crimes, The trial revolves around the authorities’ discovery of a mass grave of 36 bodies in a hillside jungle location in Songkhla Province on May 1, 2015.

The Bangkok Human Trafficking Court is expected to deliver judgments to each of the 103 defendants during at least the next three days. 

Fortify Rights monitored the trial, which began in 2015. In early 2016, six assailants who identified themselves as police officers abducted and threatened a witness in the trial. 

“They threatened me and put a gun to my head,” the witness told Fortify Rights. “I was afraid. . . . They took me to a market near [a] temple and dumped me there.” 

Interpreters involved in the investigation and trial also received multiple threats. Despite reporting the threats to relevant authorities, the authorities failed to provide interpreters with adequate protection.

“Somchai,” an interpreter in the trial, told Fortify Rights that he went into hiding and moved to four different houses throughout the course of the trial because anonymous persons questioned him at his workplace and threatened him over the telephone regarding his involvement in the trial. 

“You better eat what you want to eat,” said one caller to Somchai. “Your time is coming.”

The authorities denied Somchai’s request for formal protection on the basis that he was not a witness. However, police monitored his house periodically. 

Another interpreter in the trial told Fortify Rights of being repeatedly threatened and harassed in court by a defendant in the case. The court failed to remove the responsible defendant from the courtroom.

Fortify Rights said due process includes the protection of witnesses and others involved in the administration of justice.

In March 2016, the Thai government issued a Cabinet Resolution providing automatic protection to witnesses involved in human trafficking trials. However, the implementation of this Cabinet Resolution failed to extend to Rohingya witnesses confined to closed-door government-run shelters.

One witness testified in court that a police officer beat him in May or June 2015 while he was confined to the Songkhla shelter, which prompted him to stop cooperating with the police investigation. He told the court that he reported the assault to the authorities and that they told him that the offending police officer would be transferred. 

Fortify Rights has not confirmed whether the officer was held accountable or transferred for his actions.

According to government sources, Thai authorities continue to detain more than 121 Rohingya in government-run shelters, where their movement is limited and liberty denied.

Thai officials involved in this historic human trafficking trial have also faced threats. As previously reported by Fortify Rights, in November 2015, the lead investigator in the case, Police Major  General Paween Pongsirin, fled Thailand shortly after the trial began, citing threats to his life by high-ranking government officials. Mr. Paween would have been a key witness in the trial against officials and other defendants.

Fortify Rights is also aware of at least two other witnesses involved in the trial who went into hiding following threats to their lives. During the early stages of the trial, the Ministry of Justice provided formal protection to only 12 of hundreds of witnesses scheduled to testify. 

Fortify Rights is concerned these various factors may prejudice the outcome of the trial and potentially violate fair trial standards. 

Fair trial standards provide for the right to a public hearing, among other protections—this right extends to the general public as well as defendants. During the trial, Thai authorities generally restricted journalists and other observers from entering the courtroom or taking notes. The press and public could observe the trial through a small closed-circuit television in a separate room. However, noise and poor audio and visual quality compromised monitoring of the hearings.

The Court also allowed senior military official Lieutenant-General Manas Kongpan—arguably the most politically influential defendant in the case—and three of his witnesses to deliver their testimony in closed-door sessions. The defense argued that Lt.-Gen. Manas should receive a closed hearing to preserve state secrets that may be revealed during his testimony. At the time of the alleged violations, Lt.-Gen. Manas was the deputy of the special military unit of the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) Region 4. 

ISOC is responsible for implementing Thailand’s controversial “help-on” policy, otherwise known as “Guarding the Andaman.” Under this policy, Thai authorities systematically intercept and tow ill-equipped boats of people out to sea, greatly endangering the lives of those on board in contravention of international law.

Fair trial standards allow for closed-door hearings in exceptional situations, such as protecting public order, private lives, or national security in a democratic society. The United Nations Human Rights Committee further found that trials involving a public figure in courtrooms that are unable to accommodate members of the general public, or closed to the general public, contravene the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Thailand is a party.

Article 9 of the ICCPR also guarantees the right to liberty and forbids arbitrary, unlawful, or indefinite detention, including of non-nationals. Refugees should never be detained because of their immigration status. 

International law also 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.” 

Fortify Rights calls on the Thai authorities to conduct a thorough assessment of this trial to ensure shortcomings are remedied, perpetrators of harassment and intimidation of witnesses and others are held to account, and lessons are learned for future cases.

The Thai authorities should also reopen the investigation into the mass human trafficking of Rohingya and Bangladeshis in Thailand that occurred between 2012 to 2015 and provide adequate resources to ensure the investigation is complete, independent, and effective.

“While these irregularities would not necessarily invalidate the verdict, they raise concerns about whether this trial was fair and in line with international standards,” said Amy Smith. “Thailand can and should ensure the protection of investigators, witnesses, court employees, and most importantly, survivors of human trafficking.”

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