Human trafficking pre-trials press on
High-profile human trafficking pre-trials of migrant worker victims have continued this week amid concerns about a lack of witness protection.
Witnesses, mostly victims of smuggling, provided their testimonies between Dec 24 and Dec 25 on how they got on boats and paid fees to middlemen to work in Thailand and Malaysia.
The pre-trials of these witnesses began on Tuesday and will continue until Jan 15.The actual hearings involving more than 400 witnesses will begin in March.
The suspects, currently 91 in total, included an army lieutenant-general, senior police officers, local politicians and local business figures accused of trafficking more than 100 ethnic Rohingya and Bangladeshis through illicit camps in Thailand.
Several mass graves were discovered last year near the Thai-Malaysian border, sparking an international outcry.
Following the May crackdown, smugglers began to abandon boats carrying migrants, leading to thousands of Bangladeshis and persecuted Rohingya Muslims being stranded at sea.
Thai authorities deny threats were made against Pol Maj Gen Paween Pongsirin, former chief trafficking investigator, who resigned from the police after he was transferred to the restive far South claiming he could be at a risk of retribution from trafficking gangs.
Pol Maj Gen Paween sought asylum in Australia over a month ago and public prosecutors say he has already given his testimony in the cases.
But Fortify Rights, a non-profit human rights organisation based in Southeast Asia, has also issued a statement of concern saying witnesses involved in the high-profile human trafficking trial were underthreat and were not receiving adequate protection.
“Members of state security forces as well as suspected members of a transnational criminal syndicate have threatened or intimidated witnesses, investigators, and other individuals involved in the case,” said the NGO.
At least two witnesses have gone into hiding out of fear for their lives, and others said they were considering going into hiding due to security concerns. Only 12 witnesses are receiving formal protection from the ministry of Justice.
“Witnesses are key to ensuring justice is served in this case. Their security should be of utmost concern to the Thai authorities,” said Amy Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights.
“Powerful actors are trying to muzzle witnesses and keep them in fear for their lives.” According to the NGO, Pol Maj Gen Paween also said: “There was no support or protection for us, even after we came under threat. If I was not involved in the human trafficking investigation, I’d be fine…but because of my work on this case, I have too many enemies.”
Fortify Rights was concerned about a prolonged trial that could take up to two years.
Most of the witnesses in the case are survivors of human trafficking, including persecuted Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar and Bangladesh, and are confined to shelters operated by the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security
“Rohingya survivors of human trafficking must remain in the shelters until they are resettled in a third country,” the group said.
Noppachai Veratanya, lawyer for Lt Gen Manas Kongpan, one of the defendants, said he suspects the court will meet public prosecutors and defence lawyers to select the best witnesses to save time. As for the court’s denials of bail, Mr Noppachai said he was confident in his client’s defence.
“Apart from the not guilty plea, we will argue that the case does not come under the three main categories of human trafficking cases,” he said.
Note: Changes have been made, Bangkok Post is not responsible for these.
Source: Bangkok Post