BANGKOK, Thailand, July 21 2017 – Freeland welcomes the verdicts handed down at the Bangkok Criminal Court yesterday and the day before. A total of 103 defendants are receiving verdicts in a reading that is lasting three days. At the time of writing, 62 guilty verdicts have been read, with sentences ranging from 4 years to 94 years in a case that includes the high ranking Lt. General Manas, as well Myanmar nationals. Thai police officers and local politicians are among those accused.
Freeland’s involvement with Thai law enforcement on the Rohingya trafficking investigation provided insights not only into this case, but also into challenges and opportunities going forward in the country’s ongoing battle with trafficking. These insights point to the importance of front-line enforcement and civil society working closely together, as well as the power of digital analysis to combat corruption.
Freeland received a call in the early hours of the morning on January 11, 2015. Police had stopped 5 vehicles at a checkpoint on highway 408 in the Hua Sai district in Nakhon Si Thammarat province at 4am. Found crammed in the trucks were a total 98 people, all signs indicating they were victims of trafficking. Three drivers ran away, the other two (who owned their vehicles and were perhaps more reluctant to leave them) were arrested.
Eighteen months earlier, Freeland had assisted the deputy Police commander of Region 8, with another human trafficking case in Ranong on the Malaysian border. He asked if Freeland could help again, this time by providing what we call “digital forensics assistance”. Freeland immediately sent two investigation support officers and a technical analyst, together with “cellebrite” tech kits that Freeland uses for rapid in-field data analysis. The cellebrite kits can extract and analyze data from mobile telephones. Five mobile phones had been found on the drivers and in the vehicles. Freeland was able to access the whole telephone history of more than 3 months from each device, while training the Thai police to do the same on their own in future instances. An example of Freeland’s “in-the-field” training.
Through mapping the pinging of signals activated by these phones, Freeland was able to identify the precise route the drivers had taken on multiple occasions. The data filled in pieces of the trafficking supply chain, and ultimately uncovered the location of some holding camps. Freeland found telephone and e-banking records, linking one driver to Sunan Saengthong – the municipal chairman of Rayong province. Investigation of Sunan’s bank accounts then led directly to Lt. General Manas who received more than 20 million baht from Sunan with no legitimate explanation. Freeland and Thai Police officers from across some of the Southern provinces collaborated for 4 months, compiling and analyzing the evidence, painstakingly piecing together the entire web, before the case against the perpetrators was put through the judicial system, ending in court two years later.
Freeland believes that more than 500 people died in the camps where the people in this particular trafficking chain were held, and that the camps were probably there for at least 5 years or more. Freeland learned that these victims – stateless Rohingya people – were put into three classes by their traffickers once they arrived at the camps in southern Thailand. Those in good enough physical condition, young, male and strong, were sold to be militants for the opposition party of Malaysia. The older and weaker were sold as labor to either to Malaysian rubber or palm oil farms, or into the fishing industry. A wife and child could accompany them, as long as the buyer was prepared to pay more. The third class was the weakest or those with other means to access money. They included the ill, old, women and children. They were kept in the jungle camps and their only options were either for a relative in Thailand to pay a ‘ransom’ for their release or to stay in the camps until they died. Living on one packet of noodles a day and river water most people were in the camp only between 3-6 months.
Freeland knows this was an incredibly complex case, beset by multiple and serious challenges. Despite the probability that the network extended beyond the 103 people charged, that 62, including the most senior ranking among those accused, have been convicted with long sentences should be fully recognized in appreciation of how much sustained effort and unwavering commitment from critical members of Thailand’s police force and justice system this has demanded. It is especially important to point out how difficult and dangerous it was for local police –in this case Hau Sai and Nakhon Sri Thammarat police who initiated the case, with collaboration and expertise from Regions 8 and 9 throughout—to pursue the web of traffickers. These police should also be congratulated for collaborating with NGOs in their pursuit of justice.
“The result of this case starts to challenge the assertion of the recent TIP report that Thailand has not done enough in prosecuting senior government officials,” said Steve Galster, Director of Freeland. “However, the Thai Government must demonstrate that this is not just a one-off. In fact, it can become more business-as-usual enforcement.” Freeland’s Chairman, Kraisak Choonhavan added that “Freeland has witnessed first hand the positive impact of increased operational funding and training on the capacity and performance of Thailand’s enforcement units. But the most senior echelons of the Thai Government must also do whatever they can to clear a path for –and protect—law enforcement officers and civil society members who are trying to collaborate and help make Thailand free of trafficking and corruption.”
Freeland is a frontline counter-trafficking organization working for a world that is free of wildlife trafficking and human slavery. Our team of law enforcement, development and communications specialists work alongside partners in Asia, Africa and the Americas to build capacity, raise awareness, strengthen networks and promote good governance to protect critical ecosystems and vulnerable people. For more info, visit www.freeland.org or follow Freeland on Twitter @FREELANDpeople or www.facebook.com/freelandfoundation.
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