Thai court convicts dozens in large human-trafficking trial

Soldiers stand guard as workers exhume a mass grave in Thailand's Songkhla province in May 2015.

Story highlights

  • Case is the result of years of investigation after mass grave found
  • Criminal ring trafficked Rohingya refugees from Myanmar into Thailand

Bangkok (CNN)A Thai court on Wednesday found dozens of people guilty in the country's largest human-trafficking trial, including a high-ranking officer, Lt. Gen. Manas Kongpan.

More than 100 people appeared in court accused of taking part in a massive criminal ring that trafficked Rohingya refugees from Myanmar through Thailand and to Malaysia.
Sixty-two of them were convicted on charges of human trafficking and other offenses.
    Rescue workers and forensic officials dig out skeletons from shallow graves in Thailand in 2015.
    The case is the result of the grisly discovery in 2015 of a mass grave in the jungles between Malaysia and Thailand, which led to the exposure of the smuggling and exploitation operation.

    Refugee crisis

    Who are the Rohingya?

    • The Rohingya are a stateless Muslim minority in Myanmar's Rakhine state thought to number about 1 million people.
    • Myanmar does not recognize them as citizens or one of the 135 recognized ethnic groups in the country.
    • Myanmar regards them as illegal immigrants, a view rooted in their heritage in East Bengal, now called Bangladesh.
    • Though many Rohingya have only known life in Myanmar, they are widely viewed as intruders from across the border.
    • According to Human Rights Watch, laws discriminate against the Rohingya, infringing on their freedom of movement, education and employment.
    • They are denied land and property rights and ownership, and the land on which they live can be taken away at any given time.

    Beginning in 2012 amid sectarian violence in Myanmar's Rhakine state, tens of thousands of Rohingya, a long-oppressed ethnic minority not recognized by the government, began fleeing the country.
    Many Rohingya with the means to leave Myanmar did so by perilous sea journey. Smugglers carried them out on small boats to cargo ships, mostly bound for Malaysia. However, many neighboring countries refused to take them in, leading to a major humanitarian crisis.
    Some who did not make it out to sea were even less fortunate, trapped in squalid jungle prison camps run by smugglers, who prevented them from leaving while demanding extra payments from their families back home.
    More than 25 bodies were discovered in a mass grave near such a camp in southern Thailand's Songkhla province in May 2015, leading to a major crackdown on people smuggling in the region and dozens of arrests.
    Those accused of taking part in the human-trafficking operation range from local administrative staff and civilians to high-ranking military officials.
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    Extensive investigation

    The years-long probe into the case with as many as 80-plus police detectives at one point finally ended in court Wednesday.
    Concerns that justice would never be reached were compounded when the lead investigator sought asylum in Australia in 2015, saying that death threats had caused him to flee Thailand.
    Speaking Wednesday from Australia, Maj. Gen. Paween Pongsirin told CNN the investigation "has just started, there are many more higher-up officials involved in this ring."
    Paween, who said he was at the final stages of applying for asylum in Australia, expressed sadness for how much corruption there was in Thailand.
    In a statement, Bangkok-based human rights organization Fortify Rights praised the trial as an "unprecedented effort by Thai authorities to hold perpetrators of human trafficking accountable."
    "(However), the trial was beset by unchecked threats against witnesses, interpreters, and police investigators," the group warned, adding "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."
    The judge began reading verdicts for the more than 100 suspects at about 8.30 a.m. local time and did not finish until more than 12 hours later as he detailed the roles of each defendant in the smuggling ring.
    They ranged from transporters to financiers, from agents to guards, and those overseeing everything.
    Due to the number of people being tried, the defendants listened to the verdict from prison.
    Those found guilty Wednesday can still appeal their cases to the Court of Appeals and then Supreme Court.
    CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the number of people convicted. It is 62.