A HUMAN rights watchdog on Tuesday called on Thailand to ensure justice against traffickers of Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshi nationals, ahead of a verdict in a major trafficking trial involving more than 100 defendants that has been beset by allegations of intimidation.
Fortify Rights said the Criminal Court Division for Human Trafficking in Bangkok was scheduled to begin delivering verdicts in the country’s largest-ever mass human trafficking trial on Wednesday, July 19.
Throughout an unprecedented effort by the Thai authorities to hold human traffickers accountable, Fortify Rights said witnesses, interpreters and police investigators in the cases had been subjected to unchecked threats.
The group said it had documented abuses against ethnic Rohingya Muslims detained in closed-door shelters, violating their right to liberty. Some witnesses in the trial also reported being physically abused.
“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,” the group’s executive director Amy Smith said in a statement on Tuesday.
“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.”
A total of 103 defendants — including 21 government officials — stand accused of trafficking ethnic Rohingya and Bangladeshi nationals from Burma and Bangladesh during the first half of 2015.
Some face a sentence of life imprisonment if convicted. Those convicted of murder in the context of trafficking face a possible death sentence.
Fortify Rights said the authorities arrested only 103 suspects out of 153 who were named on official arrest warrants issued in connection with this case.
Defendants are charged with a variety of crimes, including human trafficking, murder, the unlawful use of firearms or other weapons, holding people for ransom, and other crimes. The trial was spurred by the discovery of a mass grave by Thai authorities 36 bodies in a hillside jungle location in the country’s Songkhla Province on May 1, 2015.
This led to a crackdown on smuggling and trafficking networks which led to smugglers abandoning boatloads of migrants at sea. This added to a crisis involving Malaysia, Thailand, Burma, Bangladesh and Indonesia who all initially refused boats permission to land.
Fortify Rights said it consistently monitored the trial, which began in 2015. The group said during the trial, Thai authorities had largely restricted journalists and other observers from entering the courtroom or taking notes.
The group said the press and public, could observe the trial through a small closed-circuit television in a separate room. However, noise and poor audio and visual quality compromised monitoring of the hearings.
The Court also allowed senior military official Lieutenant-General Manas Kongpan – a politically influential defendant in the case – and three of his witnesses to deliver their testimony in closed-door sessions.
“While these irregularities would not necessarily invalidate the verdict, they raise concerns about whether this trial was fair and in line with international standards,” Smith said.
“Thailand can and should ensure the protection of investigators, witnesses, court employees, and most importantly, survivors of human trafficking.”
In early 2016, six assailants who identified themselves as policemen abducted and threatened a witness.
“They threatened me and put a gun to my head,” the witness told the NGO. “I was afraid . . . They took me to a market near [a] temple and dumped me there.”
Rights groups say the arrests in 2015 were just the tip of the iceberg and that regional smuggling and trafficking networks continue to operate with impunity.
Despite the crackdown, which has made smuggling more dangerous, people-smuggling across the Thai-Burma border has risen, according to Reuters in May.
Last month, the US State Department left Thailand on a Tier 2 Watchlist, just above the lowest ranking of Tier 3, in its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report because it did not do enough to tackle human smuggling and trafficking.
Additional reporting by Reuters