A Thai court convicted and sentenced a former three-star general and 61 other defendants Wednesday in Thailand’s largest human trafficking case, which stemmed from the discovery of graves of Rohingya Muslims and Bangladeshis near the Malaysian border in 2015.
It took 13 hours for a panel of judges at the Bangkok Criminal Court to read out a 500-page verdict and sentences for all 102 defendants, who were tried together on various charges related to involvement in a transnational human smuggling ring. Forty of the defendants were acquitted, court officials said.
Former Army Lt. Gen. Manas Kongpaen was among high-profile defendants and ex-officials who were found guilty. He was sentenced to 27 years for trafficking Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar and Bangladeshis as part of a crime syndicate that was exposed through the unearthing of a mass grave in the jungle in southern Songkhla province.
Manas, who held a key post in maintaining security in Thailand’s southern border region and preventing illegal migration there, participated in the smuggling of Rohingya and other undocumented people, the court found.
“The defendant number 54 [Manas], instead of pushing back or denying entry to those Rohingya migrants, cooperated with the human traffickers, unduly taking benefits from the trafficking ring,” a judge ruled.
The discovery of the graves of 32 migrants led Thai authorities to launch a crackdown on illegal immigration and seal its maritime borders to boats smuggling in people from Bangladesh and Myanmar. This, in turn, caused a regional migration crisis that saw thousands of desperate Rohingya and Bangladeshis come ashore in nearby Indonesia and Malaysia in May 2015.
Manas’ conviction was based on evidence that he had received a kickback from trafficking kingpin Pajjuban Aungkachotephan, (alias Ko Tong), a former chief executive of the southern Thai municipality of Satun and businessman who was also convicted on Wednesday.
Ko Tong, or “Big Brother Tong,” owned resorts on the island of Lipe, and was accused of receiving trafficked persons and sending them to Malaysia.
Banjong Pongpol (alias Ko Jong), a former official in Padang Besar, a sub-district in Songkhla, facilitated their transfer to relatives in Malaysia or Myanmar after a fee of between 30,000 ($892) and 150,000 baht ($4,465) was paid, the court found. Many who were unable to pay the fee were tortured or killed, court officials said.
The two were sentenced to 78 and 75 years, respectively, but the court reduced their terms to the maximum 50 years stipulated under Thai law. Soe Naing (alias Anwar), a Rohingya man identified as the chief trafficker, was sentenced to 94 years, but this was reduced to 50 years.
Four policemen were also convicted. An army captain who served as an aide to Manas was acquitted.
Depending on their acts, each of the 102 defendants was subject to any of 16 charges ranging from being a member of international crime syndicate, to involvement in human trafficking, ransom, slavery, killing and rape.
Conviction on the crime syndicate charge carries a sentence of four to 15 years and a maximum fine of 300,000 baht (U.S. $8,927). Human trafficking charges carry a sentence of up to 15 years and a fine of up to 1 million baht ($29,759). Thai law calls for double punishment for government officials who are found guilty.
Reporters were not allowed inside the court room because of the number of defendants, but monitored the proceedings on closed-circuit television in nearby rooms.
‘No one is above the law’
Wednesday’s verdict and sentences mark a milestone in Thailand’s efforts to eradicate human trafficking, and puts an end to impunity for Thai officials, Sunai Phasuk of Human Rights Watch told BenarNews.
“Today’s verdict is a major step in efforts to combat human trafficking in Thailand, now that we see the convictions of a senior army general, local politicians, influential tycoons and others complicit in trafficking of Rohingya,” Sunai said.
“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. This is the biggest case so far, but not the only case of human trafficking in Thailand. The government must leave no stone unturned,” Sunai added.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha asked people to not blame the military despite the conviction of Manas.
“There are many people in this human trafficking network,” Prayuth told reporters, according to the Reuters news agency. “Don’t group all soldiers in the country as one.”
‘A long way to go’
Arraignments in the case began in November 2015, but not without controversy, and the trial opened in March 2016. Lead police investigator Maj. Gen. Paween Pongsirin resigned just days before the arraignments began, and sought asylum in Australia a month later after claiming that influential people in the government had ordered him to stop the probe.
Another human rights group, Fortify Rights, called on the government to ensure that those responsible be held accountable.
“This may be the end of an important and unprecedented trial, but it’s been a rocky road, and it’s not ‘case-closed’ for survivors of human trafficking here,” Fortify Rights Executive Director Amy Smith said in a press release issued on the eve of the sentencings in Bangkok.
“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.”
Sunai, of Human Rights Watch, expressed concern for the migrants.
“On the other side of the coin, the plight of Rohingya continued after they were rescued. Apart from punishing the perpetrators, there needs to be measures to protect and assist the victims,” Sunai said.
“Rohingya now either live in hiding or end up in squalid indefinite immigration lockup in Thailand, as the government does not allow them to get access to refugee status determination by the United Nations refugee agency.”