Court finds Thai general guilty of human trafficking

Bangkok (AFP) - A Thai general was found guilty of human trafficking on Wednesday as a Bangkok court convicted scores of people in a mass trial exposing the lynchpin role of corrupt officials in the grim, lucrative trade in Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants.

Thailand's junta launched a crackdown in May 2015 on a network funnelling desperate migrants through southern Thailand and onto Malaysia, holding some for ransom in jungle camps.

It unspooled a crisis across Southeast Asia as gangmasters abandoned their human cargo in the camps where hundreds died from starvation and malaria, and at sea in overcrowded boats which were then "ping ponged" between Thai, Malaysian and Indonesian waters.

After a day delivering verdicts for many of the 102 defendants, Bangkok Criminal Court found Lieutenant-General Manas Kongpan guilty of multiple human trafficking charges.

A judge said he was also guilty of complicity in a "transnational organised crime" network and "worked with others to facilitate human trafficking".

The ruling is an extremely rare conviction for a senior army officer in junta-ruled Thailand.

Manas, the highest-ranking official on trial, was a top figure in the security apparatus covering Thailand's south -- a key transit zone in a trafficking trail that stretched from Myanmar to Malaysia.

The court heard he received bank transfers from trafficking agents worth 14.8 million baht ($440,000).

But the police investigation found he also used his position to guide trafficking gangs around checkpoints after their arrival on remote beaches as they headed to the jungle camps.

In 2013 he was promoted to head the Internal Security Command (ISOC) for the entire south. Current junta leader Prayut Chan-O-Cha was army chief at the time.

Before the crackdown rights groups had long accused officials of ignoring -- and even conducting -- the trade in humans through Thailand's southern provinces.

The trial has revealed a lattice of military, police, local political and mafia figures acting as traffickers, agents and logistics men, all soaking up cash from some of Asia's poorest and most vulnerable migrants.

Over the years the smuggling gangs are estimated to have netted tens of millions of dollars.

- Soldiers and kingpins -

Some reporting restrictions were placed by judges citing national security and Manas was allowed to give evidence behind closed doors.

Another well-connected kingpin convicted on Wednesday is Pajjuban Aungkachotephan, better known as Ko Tong or 'Big Brother Tong'.

Police accused him of using private Andaman Sea islands, close to tourist spots such as Koh Lipe, to shift boatloads of migrants to the mainland, where they were packed into lorries and taken to the fetid camps straddling the Malaysia border.

He was found guilty of human trafficking and links to organised crime.

By evening over 50 people, including two police officers, had been convicted of various offences, ranging from guarding the squalid migrant camps to trafficking and negligence.

At least ten were acquitted including an army captain and a ranking police officer.

Thailand's role as a key trafficking route spilled into full view after officials found dozens of shallow graves in the hidden camps dotting the steep, forested hills of the Thai-Malaysian border in May 2015.

They revealed the horrors endured by some of the migrants, who were starved and held in bamboo pens by traffickers who demanded over $1,000 for their release.

- 'Big business, big money' -

The verdict is being closely-watched inside and outside Thailand.

The government is desperate to dispel the kingdom's notorious reputation for human trafficking.

Earlier on Wednesday Junta chief Prayut angrily denied the case reflected systemic corruption within the security services.

"Manas alone will not make the entire military collapse," he told reporters.

Critics say the case was prematurely concluded and describe a trial marred by witness intimidation, secret evidence hearings and restrictions on media reporting.

"We expect there are many more perpetrators out there," Amy Smith, from Fortify Rights, told AFP.

"This is a big business with big money."

The senior policeman who initially headed the investigation, Major General Paween Pongsirin, fled Thailand under threats to his life.

Days before he left he told AFP the case had been pulled before it could delve further into the complicity of officials.

Stateless Rohingya Muslims have fled neighbouring Myanmar in their tens of thousands since sectarian violence flared in 2012.

They were joined by Bangladeshi economic migrants on rickety boats southwards across the Andaman Sea, seeking work and sanctuary in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Thousands are believed to have died at sea, in a migrant flow that garnered few headlines until the trafficking crackdown in 2015.

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