A Thai court tripled a former Army general’s prison term from 27 to 82 years on Thursday, more than two years after he was convicted and sentenced in the nation’s largest human-trafficking case.
Former Lt. Gen. Manas Kongpaen was among 62 people out of 102 defendants who were found guilty of trafficking in July 2017, following a sensational trial that stemmed from the discovery of dozens of graves of Rohingya Muslims and Bangladeshis near the Malaysian border in 2015.
“Lt. Gen. Manas Kongpaen was found guilty of five offenses, punishable to 55 years. Combined with other previous 27-year jail terms from other crimes, the total jail term now is 82 years,” a judge at the Rachada Criminal Court in Bangkok said Thursday, upholding a lower court’s decision.
The appeals court also upheld prison terms for another 87 defendants that included Myanmar nationals, but acquitted 14, who faced a variety of charges, ranging from trafficking to murder.
“The prosecutors lodged an appeal against all 102 defendants. The appeals court sentenced 26 out of 40 who had earlier been acquitted,” Somporn Musika, one of the defense attorneys, told BenarNews after the sentencing covered by reporters through a courtroom video link.
Manas was handcuffed and wore ankle chains when he and other defendants disembarked from a prison bus in front of the Ratchada court.
It was not clear how the former general reacted to the court’s verdict, as he was wearing a face mask, presumably to protect himself from the city’s haze and air pollution.
After the judge read the verdicts, the convicts were returned to prison, officials said.
Under Thai law, the human-trafficking charge carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison and a fine of up to 1 million baht (about U.S. $30,000). The law also calls for double punishment for government officials found guilty, but the sentence is capped at 50 years.
The trafficking syndicate was exposed when authorities unearthed mass graves in the jungle in southern Songkhla province, near the Thai-Malaysia border. Investigators said the graves were part of a camp where traffickers held migrants until their relatives paid for their release.
Many of the dozens of remains found were believed to have been Rohingya Muslims, the persecuted minorities from Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
Thailand has been a destination or transit country for people smuggled and trafficked from its neighboring countries, such as Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, according to United Nations and the Australia-based rights group Walk Free Foundation, which monitors countries allegedly experiencing cases of modern slavery.
In its 2018 Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP), the U.S. State Department upgraded Thailand from the Tier 2 Watch List to Tier 2, meaning it has taken significant efforts to combat the crime by prosecuting and convicting more people smugglers and by decreasing prosecution time in such cases.
Rights groups praised the appeals court following Thursday’s verdicts.
“It is the hard work of the prosecutor team for being able to verify the faults of those defendants more clearly,” Puttanee Kangkun, a researcher for Fortify Rights, a U.S-based human rights group, told BenarNews. “Generally speaking, more defendants were punished and jail terms were raised.”