The defense phase of Thailand’s largest human-trafficking trial opened this week with scores of witnesses expected to testify, including a three-star army general who is among more than 100 defendants.
The trial – which could last two years – involved 90 defendants when it opened in March 2016, but that figure has since increased to 102. They include military and police personnel as well as government officials from southern Thailand who are accused of involvement in a transnational human-smuggling ring.
During the case’s arraignment phase in November 2015, lawyers said they would call as many as 406 witnesses after the trial got under way.
Wednesday featured testimony from an alleged kingpin of the trafficking ring, Pajjuban Aungkachotephan, (alias Ko Tong), a wealthy former chief executive of the government of Satun, a province on Thailand’s Andaman Sea coast.
Authorities have accused Pajjuban, the owner of resorts on the island of Lipe, of being the mastermind of the ring, charges which he denied on the stand during the second day of the trial’s defense phase.
“Because I bow to no one, there are some who hate me – military officials or police officers. I suspect they are forced to press charges against me,” Pajjuban told the court, insinuating that he had been framed.
Journalists covering Wednesday’s hearing were confined to a side room in the courthouse, where they watched the deliberations live via closed-circuit TV.
The defense is expected to rest its case sometime in February. Eight hearings are scheduled so far through Feb. 10 at the Bangkok North criminal court, a lawyer told BenarNews. A verdict in the landmark case is expected in late March, attorney Somporn Musika said.
The southern provinces were the focus of a crackdown against human traffickers launched by the Thai junta in May 2015, following the discovery of 32 graves in illegal jungle camps near the border with Malaysia. The burial spots were believed to contain the remains of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar and Bangladeshis who had been smuggled into the country, authorities said at the time.
The crackdown included a maritime blockade that prevented smugglers’ boats from landing in Thailand. This forced thousands of undocumented Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants to come ashore in neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia that month.
While testifying on Wednesday, defendant Pajjuban denied that he was guilty of 13 charges, including human trafficking.
Authorities have alleged that he was involved in human trafficking with former Army Lt. Gen. Manas Kongpaen, saying that Pajjuban’s associates at one point wired 14 million baht (U.S. $397,000) to the general.
Pajjuban testified that he didn’t know Manas very well but had met him on at least one occasion.
“I once saw Manas at a bullfighting event and I then met him at a hotel. I greeted him as he is a senior official and we talked about trading fighting bulls,” Pajjuban told the court.
He referred during his testimony to a fellow defendant, Banjong Pongpol (also known as Ko Jong), a former official in Padang Besar, a sub-district of Songkhla province. The jungle graves were located in area of the sub-district known as Khao Khaew.
“Banjong called me when his friend visited my neighborhood, asking for recommendations for sight-seeing,” Pajjuban said, adding that any phone calls between them were in no way linked to the 13 trafficking charges against him.
When a prosecutor cross-examined him on whether he knew about Khao Khaew, Pajjuban replied,
“I don’t know Khao Khaew. I have never been there.”