Thailand convicts traffickers after 2015 mass graves discovery

Bodies were found in southern Songkhla province where authorities said hundreds of migrants had been held captive

A Thai judge has found dozens of people guilty, including senior army general, in the country’s largest ever human trafficking trial following the discovery two years ago of mass graves in a squalid jungle camp where hundreds of migrants had been brutally exploited.

Sentencing began on Wednesday morning for 102 people, including 21 government officials, and was still continuing 12 hours later. Most of the 62 found guilty so far were brought to trial on charges of forcible detention leading to death, trafficking, rape and belonging to organised transnational criminal networks.

Police opened the case after more than two dozen bodies were discovered in a shallow grave in southern Songkhla province in 2015. Authorities said the victims had been held captive by people-smugglers who kept migrants as hostages for ransom.

The case led to a crackdown on smuggling networks that brought people from Myanmar and Bangladesh to Thailand. But government action resulted in a secondary crisis in which smugglers, fearing arrest, abandoned boatloads of migrants. The UN refugee agency estimated hundreds died at sea, primarily as a result of starvation, dehydration and beatings by boat crews.

The court heard on Wednesday how many Rohingya, a Muslim minority persecuted in Myanmar, and Bangladeshis paid people smugglers to reach Thailand. When they arrived, the court heard, they were detained in bamboo pens and had to beg their families to pay a ransom for their release.

The desperate calls were often made as the victims were being beaten to prove that the captors were serious in their demands for money – roughly 100,000 to 160,000 Thai baht (£2,280-£3,650). The migrants were told to tell their families that their throats would be sliced if the money did not arrive.

Dozens of victims, eating infrequent meals of rice, were given wristbands and regularly counted to make sure none had escaped. Several of the defendants at the trial were camp guards who were armed with guns and knives and paid less than £10 a day.

Rescue workers and forensic officials dig out skeletons from shallow graves following the discovery of an abandoned jungle camp in southern Thailand in May 2015.
Rescue workers and forensic officials dig out skeletons from shallow graves following the discovery of an abandoned jungle camp in May 2015. Photograph: Madaree Tohlala/AFP/Getty Images

The mammoth, two-year trial – its verdict more than 500 pages long – included testimony from more than 200 witnesses, uncovering what appears to be a highly organised network of people-smuggling across Thailand and Malaysia. Much of the witness testimony was from former camp detainees.

The highest-profile defendant was Lt Gen Manus Kongpan, who was found guilty of multiple human trafficking charges, an extremely rare occurrence in a country controlled by a military elite.

Another senior figure to be handed a sentence was Patchuban Angchotipan, a wealthy businessperson and former provincial official known as Ko Tor or “Big Brother Tor”. The court referred to Patchuban as a “big boss” and found him guilty of trafficking children under 15, among other charges. Witnesses said that whenever there was a problem in transportation of the captives, Patchuban would be called.

Many of the 102 defendants were arrested by police following the discovery of the camps and eyewitness testimony. Several of the higher-ranking officers handed themselves in.

Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher on Thailand at Human Rights Watch, said the convictions are a “major step” in combat human trafficking in Thailand and should set the tone for other ongoing cases.

“This should send a strong message that regardless of their status and affiliation, no one is above the law. Impunity of trafficking gangs is now being stripped off.”

The court heard that at least two of the victims who survived the gruesome treatment were aged under 15 and the youngest was a 12-year-old boy.

The trial was plunged into disrepute in December 2015 when the most senior police investigator in the case fled the country to seek political asylum in Australia. He said he feared for his life after influential figures in the Thai government, military and police who were implicated in trafficking wanted him killed.

Maj Gen Paween Pongsirin was appointed to lead the investigation into the grim discovery but told Guardian Australia and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that “from the beginning” he was under pressure not to pursue the perpetrators too enthusiastically.

Maj Gen Paween Pongsirin on the banks of the Yarra river in Melbourne.
Maj Gen Paween Pongsirin on the banks of the Yarra river in Melbourne. Photograph: Meredith O'Shea/The Guardian

Fortify Rights, a non-profit rights group based in south-east Asia, said that while the case “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”.

The group said it had documented how Thai authorities detained ethnic-Rohingya witnesses and allegedly physically assaulted witnesses in the trial. Six assailants, who had identified themselves as police officers, abducted and threatened a witness in early 2016, Fortify Rights said, adding that interpreters involved in the investigation and trial had also received multiple threats.

Rights groups were also dismayed when Lt Gen Manas Kongpan, and three of his witnesses delivered their testimony in closed-door sessions, purportedly to preserve state secrets.

“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,” said Amy Smith, the executive director of Fortify Rights.

“While these irregularities would not necessarily invalidate the verdict, they raise concerns about whether this trial was fair and in line with international standards.”

The US state department last month kept Thailand on a tier 2 watchlist, just above the lowest ranking, in its annual Trafficking in Persons Report, for a lacklustre effort to combat the trade.

Thailand’s government denies trafficking syndicates are still operating.

In the months after the corpses were discoveredin Thailand, Malaysian authorities said they had found close to 20 camps with more than 100 bodies in mass graves, pointing to a network of detention camps along the forested border area between the two countries.

Due to Thailand’s drawn-out legal procedures, the exact sentences for the defendants may not be disclosed until later this week.

Additional reporting by Phakarat Ryn Jirenuwat


Oliver Holmes in Bangkok

The GuardianTramp

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