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61 Thai officials jailed for trafficking Rohingya Muslims, Bangladeshis

| Updated: Jul 20, 2017 23:04 IST

Bangkok [Thailand], July 20 (ANI): In Thailand's largest human trafficking case, the Bangkok Criminal Court has convicted and sentenced a very high-profile former three-star general and 61 other defendants, including ex-officials for trafficking Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar and Bangladeshis as part of a crime syndicate after receiving kickbacks from trafficking kingpin Ko Tong. While the former Lt. General was sentenced 27 years, the Soe Naing (alias Anwar), a Rohingya man identified as the chief trafficker was sentenced to 94 years and two other convicts were sentenced to 78 and 79 years respectively, but the court reduced their terms to the maximum 50 years stipulated under Thai law. Manas Kongpaen, former Lt. Gen. of Thai Army, was among high-profile defendants and ex-officials who were found guilty and sentenced to 27 years of imprisonment. "Former Army Lt. Gen. Manas Kongpaen was sentenced to 27 years for trafficking Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar and Bangladeshis as part of a crime syndicate which stemmed from the discovery of graves of Rohingya Muslims and Bangladeshis near the Malaysian border," Benar News reported on Thursday. The mass graves of Rohingya Muslims and Bangladeshis were unearthed in the jungle in southern Songkhla province near the Malaysian border two years ago in 2015, which led to the expose of transnational human smuggling ring, report said. The discovery of the graves of 32 migrants led Thai authorities to launch a crackdown on illegal immigration and seal its maritime borders to boats smuggling in people from Bangladesh and Myanmar. This, in turn, caused a regional migration crisis that saw thousands of desperate Rohingya and Bangladeshis come ashore in nearby Indonesia and Malaysia in May 2015. It was one of the historic cases in the judiciary of Thailand, in which the Bangkok Criminal Court sentences for all 102 defendants, who were tried together on various charges related to involvement in the transnational human smuggling ring. Forty of the defendants were acquitted, court officials said. It was also historic, because, it took 13 hours for a panel of judges at the Bangkok Criminal Court to read out the 500-page verdict. Lt. Gen. Manas, during his services, held a key post in maintaining security in Thailand's southern border region and preventing illegal migration there, participated in the smuggling of Rohingya and other undocumented people, the court found. "The defendant number 54 (Manas), instead of pushing back or denying entry to those Rohingya migrants, cooperated with the human traffickers, unduly taking benefits from the trafficking ring," a judge ruled. Manas' conviction was based on evidence that he had received a kickback from trafficking kingpin Pajjuban Aungkachotephan, (alias Ko Tong), a former chief executive of the southern Thai municipality of Satun and businessman who was also convicted on Wednesday. Ko Tong, or "Big Brother Tong," owned resorts on the island of Lipe, and was accused of receiving trafficked persons and sending them to Malaysia. Banjong Pongpol (alias Ko Jong), a former official in Padang Besar, a sub-district in Songkhla, facilitated their transfer to relatives in Malaysia or Myanmar after a fee of between 30,000 ($892) and 150,000 baht ($4,465) was paid, the court found. Many who were unable to pay the fee were tortured or killed, court officials said. Pajjuban Aungkachotephan, (alias Ko Tong) and Banjong Pongpol (alias Ko Jong were sentenced to 78 and 79 years, respectively, but the court reduced their terms to the maximum 50 years stipulated under Thai law. Soe Naing (alias Anwar), a Rohingya man identified as the chief trafficker, was sentenced to 94 years, but this was reduced to 50 years. An army captain who served as an aide to Manas was acquitted. However four policemen were also convicted. Depending on their acts, each of the 102 defendants was subject to any of 16 charges ranging from being a member of international crime syndicate, to involvement in human trafficking, ransom, slavery, killing and rape. Under Thai law, conviction on the crime syndicate charge carries a sentence of four to 15 years and a maximum fine of 300,000 baht (USD 8,927). Human trafficking charges carry a sentence of up to 15 years and a fine of up to 1 million baht (USD 29,759). Thai law calls for double punishment for government officials who are found guilty. Reporters were not allowed inside the court room because of the number of defendants, but monitored the proceedings on closed-circuit television in nearby rooms. The Bangkok Criminal Court's verdict and sentences mark a milestone in Thailand's efforts to eradicate human trafficking, and puts an end to impunity for Thai officials; report said quoting Sunai Phasuk of Human Rights Watch. "Today's verdict is a major step in efforts to combat human trafficking in Thailand, now that we see the convictions of senior army general, local politicians, influential tycoons and others complicit in trafficking of Rohingya," Sunai said. "This should send a strong message that regardless of their status and affiliation, no one is above the law. Impunity of trafficking gangs is now being stripped off. This is the biggest case so far, but not the only case of human trafficking in Thailand. The government must leave no stone unturned," Sunai added. Hearings in the case began in November 2015, but not without controversy, and the trial opened in March 2016. Lead police investigator Maj. Gen. Paween Pongsirin resigned just days before the hearing of the case began, and sought asylum in Australia a month later after claiming that influential people in the government had ordered him to stop the probe. Fortify Rights, a human rights group, called on the government to ensure that those responsible be held accountable. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha asked people to not blame the military despite the conviction of Manas. (ANI)