BANGKOK (AP) – A Thai army general was one of dozens of people found guilty Wednesday in a major human trafficking trial that included more than 103 defendants accused of involvement in a modern-day slavery trade.
Lt. Gen. Manas Kongpaen was convicted of several offenses involving trafficking and taking bribes in the case involving migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh.
He had held a position with responsibility for keeping out and expelling migrants who entered Thailand illegally. Because he was a government official, any sentence he receives will be double that of an ordinary citizen who violated the same trafficking laws.
At least one other defendant considered a kingpin in the illegal trade, Pajjuban Aungkachotephan, was also found guilty. He was a prominent businessman and former politician in the southern province of Satun.
By Wednesday evening, around 70 verdicts had been handed down, with sentences to be announced later. The process can take hours before all details are announced, with the possibility of it spilling over into the next day.
All the defendants were charged with human trafficking and pleaded not guilty.
The defendants were arrested in 2015 after 36 bodies were discovered in shallow graves in southern Thailand in what had served as holding camps until migrants could be smuggled over the border into Malaysia, the intended destination for most. Other such camps with scores more bodies were found, some on the Malaysian side of the frontier.
According to investigators, smugglers held Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution and poverty in Myanmar for ransom in the jungle camps until relatives could pay for their release. In some cases, they were sold to work as virtual slaves in Thailand. Poor Bangladeshis were also among the migrants.
Others did not make it as far as Thai shores. Most Rohingya were “boat people” who fled from Myanmar or neighboring Bangladesh on rickety vessels with no supplies, often to find themselves pushed back into the open sea by countries such as Thailand unwilling to welcome them.
The case drew special attention when its lead police investigator, Maj. Gen. Paween Pongsirin, fled to Australia and said he feared for his life after his findings implicated “influential people” in Thailand who wanted to silence him.
Thailand’s military government has said it is making the fight against human trafficking a national priority.
In a separate case in 2015, labor abuses in the Thai seafood industry gained in prominence around the globe after a two-year investigation by The Associated Press led to the freeing of more than 2,000 slaves and the arrest of more than a dozen alleged traffickers. Several have been convicted.
The people smuggling cases that year put a spotlight on Thailand’s long history of negligence toward human-trafficking cases, which led to the U.S. State Department’s demotion of Thailand in 2015 to the lowest tier in its annual report ranking countries based on their efforts to counter modern day slavery.
Since then, Thailand’s military government has repeatedly said it is stepping up efforts to tackle the problem. It labeled the fight against people smuggling a “national priority” and introduced tougher punishments for traffickers including life imprisonment.
The Thai government’s efforts were acknowledged by the State Department, which has since promoted Thailand up a level to its current ranking on the “tier 2 watch list,” for governments that do not fully meet the minimum standards of combating trafficking but are making significant efforts to do so.
Ahead of the trial, the human rights group Fortify Rights called on Thailand to “ensure perpetrators and accomplices involved in trafficking Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshi nationals are held to account.”
“While the trial marks an unprecedented effort by Thai authorities to hold perpetrators of human trafficking accountable, the trial was beset by unchecked threats against witnesses, interpreters, and police investigators,” the group said in a statement.
“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,” said Amy Smith, the group’s executive director. “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.”