Hundreds of Thai women were lured to the United States to work in brothels across the country, U.S. prosecutors said, as they announced that five people had been convicted of various charges for their involvement in “modern-day sex slavery.”
Prosecutors said a federal jury on Wednesday found the five people guilty of conspiracy to commit sex trafficking and other charges after a six-week trial in St. Paul, Minnesota.
“The defendants … participated in a massive yet brutally efficient criminal enterprise that trafficked hundreds of vulnerable Thai women for sexual exploitation and used sophisticated money-laundering techniques,” Assistant Attorney General Brian A. Benczkowski told a news conference in Washington on Thursday.
Busadee Santipitaks, spokeswoman for the Thai ministry of foreign affairs, told BenarNews on Friday that Bangkok was “looking into the matter.”
“We believe we have file of this case but we cannot comment now,” she said.
Lt. Gen. Worawat Watnakorn, commander of Thailand’s anti-human trafficking police, also declined to give a reaction.
“I have my deputy following up on this issue,” he told BenarNews.
The women, who were from impoverished backgrounds and spoke little or no English, were coerced to participate in the criminal scheme through misleading promises of a better life in the United States and the ability to provide money to their families in Thailand, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) said in a statement.
“Once in the United States, the victims were sent to houses of prostitution where they were forced to have sex with strangers – every day – for up to 12 hours a day, at times having sex with 10 men a day,” it said.
The victims were not allowed to leave the houses of prostitution, unless accompanied by a member of the criminal organization, and were moved around the country and their families in Thailand were threatened, the statement also said.
The suspects – who were arrested as part of an international law-enforcement operation dubbed “Bangkok Dark Nights” – helped the women obtain fraudulent visas and travel documents and lied to them about the size of their debts, often more than $40,000, according to the Star Tribune newspaper, quoting prosecutors.
“This was modern-day sex slavery,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Melinda Williams told jurors Monday, according to the Star-Tribune.
The DOJ, in its statement, said the suspects used fictitious backgrounds and occupations for the victims and instructed them to enter into fraudulent marriages to increase the likelihood that the women’s visa applications would be approved.
Authorities recovered U.S. $1.5 million in cash and about $15 million in judgments through plea agreements, prosecutors said.
Michael Morris, 65, of Seal Beach, California; Pawinee Unpradit, 46, of Dallas, Texas; Saowapha Thinram, 44, of Hutto, Texas; Thoucharin Ruttanamongkongul, 35, of Chicago Illinois; and Waralee Wanless, 39, of The Colony, Texas, were convicted after being accused of running a sex trafficking operation that lasted more than a decade, prosecutors said, adding that 31 defendants had previously pleaded guilty for their roles in the sex trafficking operation.
Lawyers for the five defendants have not disputed that their clients participated in the sex trade, noting that prostitution is not a federal crime, according to the Star-Tribune. Defense attorneys told reporters they would appeal, insisting that the Thai women were willful participants.
Some of the victims testified during trial, narrating how they were forced to have sex with multiple men to pay off what they owed the traffickers, prosecutors said.
“Sex trafficking is a horrific crime that seeks to erode the human dignity of victims," Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband told reporters.