World

Guilty verdicts in landmark trial

Army general, politicians and cops among 46 convicted of human trafficking in Thailand

BANGKOK: An army general, two provincial politicians and police officers were among 46 people found guilty yesterday by a judge in Thailand's biggest human trafficking trial, from a total of 103 defendants.

Some of those found guilty of trafficking were also convicted of taking part in organised transnational crime, forcible detention leading to death and rape.

Thailand's lengthy legal procedure in delivering verdicts means it may take a while before the judge reveals the exact sentences of those convicted to a packed court in Bangkok.

The defendants, among them Myanmar nationals, were accused of smuggling and trafficking migrants on the Thai-Malaysia border.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha asked Thais not to blame the trafficking on military figures, a reference to the army general on trial, Manas Kongpan, the most senior of the officials arrested in 2015.

"There are many people in this human trafficking network," he told reporters. "Don't group all soldiers in the country as one."

The two convicted politicians are Patchuban Angchotipan - a former official in the Satun provincial government better known as "Big Brother Tong" - and Bannakong Pongphol, a former mayor of Padang Besar in Songkhla.

SHALLOW GRAVES

The trial began in 2015 after a crackdown on trafficking gangs following the gruesome discovery of dozens of shallow graves near the Thai-Malaysia border that the authorities said was part of a jungle camp where traffickers held migrants as hostages until relatives were able to pay for their release.

Many never made it out.

Some of the dead are thought to have been Rohingya, a Muslim minority from Myanmar's troubled Rakhine state. The trial has been marred by allegations of intimidation of witnesses, interpreters and police investigators.

Rights groups said trafficking networks were largely left intact by the 2015 crackdown and trial.

"We believe the crackdown is only a disruption... that network is still very much well in place," Ms Amy Smith of Fortify Rights told Reuters.

Mr Sunai Phasuk, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the death penalty could be the heaviest sentence for those convicted of trafficking.

"The fact that there are very senior officials charged with this crime will help deter criminals in trafficking networks in the future," Mr Sunai, who observed the court proceedings, told Reuters.

Thailand has denied that trafficking syndicates still flourish, saying it has largely stamped out human trafficking. - REUTERS

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