Trafficking Trial: Witnesses in hiding, victims in detention

Originally published at Asian Correspondent on 12th January 2016

Last year’s crackdown on the trafficking of Rohingya refugees from Burma (Myanmar), and the subsequent discovery of mass graves at human trafficking camps hidden among the jungles of Southern Thailand led to the arrest of 91 individuals who are now standing trial in Bangkok.

The trial, which began at the Bangkok Criminal Court on November 10, 2015, continued last week with preliminary witness testimony. Officials predict the trial could last as long as two years.

While the crackdown on traffickers appears to have, at least temporarily, disrupted the traffickers’ lucrative business, there are concerns about this trial and in particular the safety and treatment of the witnesses and victims.

Threats made towards the key witnesses in this high-profile trial made international headlines in December when the lead investigator, Pol Maj-General Paween Pongsirin, quit the police force and fled to Australia, claiming his life was in danger for having exposed powerful individuals and crime syndicates. He is currently in Australia seeking asylum.

Speaking to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Paween also claimed his investigation had been hindered by highly influential people who were, “involved in running the human trafficking”. In reply to these accusations National Police Chief General Chakthip Chaijinda said the police were considering suing Paween for his remarks which had damaged Thailand’s reputation.

The 91 individuals who are now facing trial as a result of Paween’s investigation include an army lieutenant-general, Lt Gen Manas Kongpan, senior police officers, local politicians and local business figures. They are accused of trafficking more than 100 ethnic Rohingya and Bangladeshis from Burma and Bangladesh to Thailand, holding them for ransom under abusive conditions, and facilitating their onward movement to Malaysia. They face charges for violating the 2013 Anti-Participation in Organized Crime Act, the 2008 Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act, the 1979 Immigration Act, the 1947 Firearms, Ammunition, Explosive Articles and Fireworks and Imitation of Firearms Act, and the Criminal Code, which could result in a maximum sentence of death or life imprisonment.

NGOs and human rights organizations believe that transnational criminal syndicates have been trafficking Rohingya  from Burma and Bangladesh through Thailand for years, with tens of thousands of refugees taking the treacherous journey each year to escape state-sanctioned persecution in Burma.

While a proportion of these refugees eventually make it to Malaysia successfully, many more find themselves sold into slavery aboard Thai fishing boats. The successful prosecution of individuals profiting from these human rights abuses is an essential step towards ending modern day slavery in Southeast Asia’s fishing industries.

The evidence in this trafficking case includes witnesses testimony from investigators, 80 Rohingya and Bangladeshi survivors of human trafficking, as well as the 36 unidentified bodies exhumed from mass graves near human trafficking jungle camps which were uncovered by Thai authorities on May 1, 2015.

However some key witnesses have been forced into hiding out of fear for their lives and of the approximately 500 witnesses scheduled to testify, only 12 are receiving formal protection under the Ministry of Justice. There are concerns that intimidation by powerful individuals could disrupt the course of justice. As Amy Smith, executive director of human rights group Fortify Rights explains, “Powerful actors are trying to muzzle witnesses and keep them in fear for their lives.”

An example of this intimidation comes from one key witness, known by his pseudonym, “Mohammed Razam”, who supported the police investigation and claims to have intimate knowledge of the trafficking of refugees in the region. He told Fortify Rights: “I was threatened to leave the country, and I was told to stay out of the trafficking case.” “Mohammed” is now in hiding following these alleged threats.

Meanwhile, other witnesses, including the victims and survivors of human trafficking, are confined to shelters operated by the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security. Thai government officials confirmed that Rohingya survivors of human trafficking must remain in the shelters until they are resettled to a third country. Having been rescued from human traffickers, these survivors now find themselves denied freedom of movement and the right to liberty. These individuals now face an uncertain future, and may be forced to return to Burma only to face further persecution.

“Confining people to shelters is not the same as protection,” said Amy Smith. “Thai authorities are subjecting survivors of trafficking to further abuses, while expecting the international community to praise them for it. It doesn’t work that way. If Thailand wants to combat human trafficking, it should prioritize protection for survivors.”

Following the decisions by United States to keep Thailand on the lowest rank of the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, the EU’s decision to issue the country with a yellow card, which could be further downgraded to a red card later this month, alongside damning reports in the international media and from international food companies, authorities in Thailand have been desperate to improve the international community’s perception of the country’s fishing industry.

The trial of these 91 individuals accused to human trafficking represents Thailand’s commitment to human rights and its commitment to cleaning up an industry which has for too long profited from the exploitation of vulnerable refugees. As such ensuring the safety and wellbeing of the witnesses and victims in this trial is paramount, not just for Thailand’s image, but also, to demonstrate that justice can prevail in Thailand’s judicial system.

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