Verdicts delivered in Thailand’s largest human trafficking trial
(Bangkok, July 20, 2017)—A Criminal Court in Thailand yesterday sentenced 62 defendants, including senior government officials, to up to 94 years’ imprisonment for crimes including trafficking and murdering Rohingya refugees from Myanmar and Bangladeshis in 2015. These verdicts mark a step forward for Thailand’s efforts to combat human trafficking, but authorities should reopen the investigation into the trafficking of tens of thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshis from 2012 to 2015, said Fortify Rights.
“This judgment is a milepost for Thai authorities and we hope it sends a shockwave to criminal syndicates and complicit institutions in the country,” said Amy Smith, Executive Director of Fortify Rights. “More needs to be done to account for the horrific crimes that took place in Thailand over the last few years and to ensure this never happens again.”
The Criminal Court Division for Human Trafficking in Bangkok convicted 62 defendants of crimes including human trafficking, transnational organized crime, conspiracy, murder, attempted murder, beatings, coercion, holding people for ransom, and carrying weapons unlawfully. Sentences ranged from 4 to 94 years’ imprisonment.
The Court doubled the sentences of defendants who were government officials or members of a transnational organized criminal network as well as defendants who committed crimes against children or with more than three people. However, the court reduced the sentences of those who received more than 50 years’ imprisonment to 50 years in accordance with section 91(3) of Thailand’s Criminal Code.
Those convicted yesterday include senior Thai government and military officials. The Court sentenced senior military officer of the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) Region 4 Lieutenant-General Manas Kongpan to 27 years’ imprisonment; the former Mayor and Deputy Mayor of Padang Besar, Bannajong Pongphol and Prasit Lemleh, to 78 years’ imprisonment, and the former Provincial Administrative Officer of Satun Province Pajuban Aungchotiphan (also known as “Ko Tong”) to 75 years’ imprisonment.
The Court acquitted 40 defendants, but released only 12 following the hearing. The court ordered the remaining 28 persons to remain imprisoned during the appeal process.
The Court also granted compensation ranging from 54,500 to 265,550 Thai Baht (US$1,621 to US$7,901) to survivors of human trafficking, ordering the convicted defendants to pay a total amount of 4,400,250 Thai Baht (US$130,973) in compensation.
The trial revolved around the Thai authorities’ discovery of a mass-grave site containing 36 bodies in a hillside jungle location in Songkhla Province on May 1, 2015.
Dozens of Rohingya and Bangladeshi survivors and eyewitnesses described to Fortify Rights several undiscovered mass-grave sites believed to be in Thailand and Malaysia.
“Thai authorities shouldn’t sweep undiscovered mass graves under the rug of this trial,” said Amy Smith. “We documented a massive operation that trafficked tens of thousands of Rohingya during a three-year period. The loss of life was significantly more than the focus of this trial.”
From at least 2012 to 2015, transnational criminal syndicates and complicit Thai authorities held captive, at any given time, several thousand Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshi nationals in illicit “torture camps” in conditions of enslavement, depriving them of adequate food, water, and shelter, and beating and sometimes killing victims.
Alleged members of human trafficking syndicates who preyed on Rohingya and others in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Malaysia have not been held to account, Fortify Rights said.
Fortify Rights calls on the Thai authorities to reopen the investigation into the mass human trafficking of Rohingya and Bangladeshis in Thailand that occurred between 2012 to 2015 and to provide adequate resources to ensure the investigation is complete, independent, and effective. Thai authorities should also 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.
Fortify Rights’ monitored the trial and revealed it was beset by unchecked threats against witnesses, interpreters, and police investigators. Threats against the chief investigator, Major General Paween Pongsirin, caused him to flee Thailand just one month after the trial commenced. Thai authorities also arbitrarily detained Rohingya witnesses, some of whom were physically assaulted.
Fortify Rights’ monitoring also revealed fair-trial issues. The court prohibited the news media and other observers from note taking and limited their access to the courtroom, which compromised monitoring of the trial. In its written summary, the Court noted that journalists and members of the public were required to watch the trial from a separate room because of the large number of defendants and their attorneys. The Court further noted that restrictions on recording and transmitting information were necessary to “maintain order” in the Court and to “not affect the case” of either the prosecution or defense.
Following the investigation into the trafficking of Rohingya and Bangladeshis, the Thai authorities issued 153 arrest warrants; however, 50 individuals named in arrest warrants remain unaccounted for. The trial commenced in October 2015 and concluded in February 2017 after hearing testimony from 98 prosecution witnesses, including children, and 111 defense witnesses and reviewing more than 1,800 evidentiary documents. One defendant died during the trial.
“Thailand has an opportunity to use this momentum to stamp out the scourge of trafficking,” said Amy Smith. “This trial was a step in the right direction, but sadly, this case is far from closed.”