The chief investigator and key witness in a high-profile, mass criminal trial of alleged human traffickers in Thailand has left the country following threats against his life, Fortify Rights said today. High-ranking government officials allegedly cut short the investigation following the arrest of several high-level officials.
Police Major General Paween Pongsirin, the former Deputy Commissioner of Provincial Police Region 8, led the team of investigators and prosecutors in uncovering a human trafficking syndicate that resulted in the arrest of 91 individuals in 2015. He told Fortify Rights that he feared for his life, and he is now at an undisclosed location.
The prosecution in the case listed Paween as the key witness to testify against officials and other individuals facing criminal charges for their alleged involvement in trafficking more than 100 mostly Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar and Bangladesh. The officials include members of the Thai Army, Navy, Police, and the Internal Security Operation Command—an agency under the Office of the Prime Minister devoted to matters of national security—as well as local administrators, mayors, and district officials.
“This trial is a test of Thailand’s commitment to end human trafficking, and the prognosis isn’t looking good,” said Amy Smith, Executive Director of Fortify Rights. “Paween and other investigators should be supported to combat human trafficking in Thailand, not be forced into hiding.”
Paween told Fortify Rights his life was in grave danger and explained how high-ranking government officials repeatedly obstructed and prematurely halted the investigation before further wrongdoing and complicity by high-ranking government officials could be uncovered.
“We had a plan to continue to track the financial records to complete the evidence that we had on hand,” Paween told Fortify Rights. “If we were able to continue the investigation, I think we might find more connections between higher-level officials and the human trafficking trade.”
The Thai Government allegedly failed to provide necessary financial resources for the investigation. Senior government officials repeatedly warned investigators to stop investigating military officials and promoted complicit authorities to higher positions while demoting investigators for doing their jobs effectively. More than 60 suspects in the case are still at-large with outstanding warrants for their arrest.
“There are many Thai officials with integrity who want to bring human traffickers to justice, but their hands are tied,” said Amy Smith. “This will be nothing more than a show trial until Thailand undertakes a fully supported investigation into official complicity in human trafficking.”
Another police officer involved in the investigation told Fortify Rights that influential figures, politicians, and military and police officers “exercised their power to obstruct the investigation” in various ways, including through the intimidation of investigators and witnesses in the case. There are at least two criminal cases being brought against alleged traffickers for intimidating witnesses.
The Commissioner-General of the Royal Thai Police, Police General Chakthip Chaijinda ordered for Paween to be transferred to the post of the Deputy Commissioner of the Southern Border Provinces Police Operation Center in Thailand’s restive southern border provinces, an area controlled by the Thai military and a stronghold for human traffickers.
On November 5, 2015, Paween formally resigned due to serious security concerns.
“The police investigation into human trafficking interfered with the business interests of [officials and people with political connections] in the south so this [transfer] would create problems for
me,” Paween told Fortify Rights. “There are many examples of police who were killed in the Deep South, and I don’t want to follow that path.”
The trial began on November 10, 2015 at the Criminal Court in Bangkok. It now involves 91 defendants described as nationals from Thailand, Myanmar, and Bangladesh. The defendants are accused of involvement in transporting people from Myanmar and Bangladesh to Thailand, holding
them for ransom under abusive conditions, and facilitating their onward movement to Malaysia. They face charges for violating the 2013 Anti-Participation in Organized Crime Act, the 2008 Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act, the 1979 Immigration Act, the 1947 Firearms, Ammunition, Explosive Articles and Fireworks and Imitation of Firearms Act, and the Criminal Code, which could result in a maximum sentence of death or life imprisonment.
Evidence collected by Thai investigators alleges that military officials received millions of US dollars in payments from trafficking syndicates, amounts likely to be only a fraction of the profits made by the syndicates. In testimony delivered to the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs in April 2014, Fortify Rights alleged that human trafficking from Myanmar and Bangladesh to Malaysia, via Thailand, generated more than US$250 million since 2012.
In the annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report issued by the US Department of State, Thailand remains at Tier-3, the lowest designation reserved for countries failing to effectively prosecute human traffickers, protect survivors, and prevent trafficking in persons. The next TIP report is expected in mid-2016.
Transnational criminal syndicates have trafficked at least tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar and Bangladesh as well as Bangladeshi nationals through Thailand for several years. The evidence in this case includes 80 Rohingya and Bangladeshi survivors of human trafficking and 36 unidentified bodies exhumed from mass graves near human trafficking jungle camps uncovered by Thai authorities on May 1, 2015.
Eyewitness and survivor testimony collected over the past two years by Fortify Rights suggests the existence of far more mass graves in Thai territory.
Fortify Rights called on the Thai authorities to reopen the investigation into human trafficking in Thailand and provide adequate resources to ensure the investigation is complete, independent, and effective. Protection of investigators and witnesses will be a key benchmark for this trial.
“The prospect of justice in this case hinges on the safe participation of witnesses and investigators,” said Amy Smith. “If the Thai government wants to end the cycle of impunity that has plagued the country, it should continue the investigation and ensure protection for all involved.”