BANGKOK — A court in Thailand on Wednesday convicted scores of defendants accused of organizing a human-trafficking ring that enslaved hundreds of people, dozens of whom were found buried in a mass gravenear a secret jungle camp in which they had been imprisoned, tortured and held for ransom.
The 102 defendants, including a Thai general, police officers, and smugglers from Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand, were arrested in 2015 after 36 bodies were found in shallow graves near the border with Malaysia. The discovery led to efforts to dismantle a multimillion-dollar smuggling enterprise, and the traffickers soon abandoned their human chattel in jungle camps or in crowded vessels adrift in the Andaman Sea.
Investigators said the victims were from Bangladesh or Myanmar — many of them Rohingya, a persecuted Muslim minority — and had paid smugglers to help them find work in Thailand. Instead, they became slaves in Thailand’s lucrative fishing fleet, the authorities said.
Judges at the Criminal Court in Bangkok held a lengthy session on Wednesday to announce the verdicts, and many relatives of the defendants were crying as the verdicts were read aloud. In doing so, the judges quoted the testimony of witnesses who had described harrowing transnational journeys of deprivation.
Victims said they had been smuggled from Bangladesh and Myanmar in cramped boats with little food and water. After arriving in Thailand, they were packed into trucks and marched to camps high in the forested mountains of Songkla Province. There, they were imprisoned and made to call their families and beg for ransoms of around $3,000. Some said they had been raped.
When discovering the jungle camp in 2015, the Thai police described finding bamboo cages, watchtowers and a “torture room.”
Under pressure from the United States and Europe to crack down on human trafficking, the junta that came to power in a coup in 2014 made a display of prosecuting members of the ring, including a high-ranking officer in the Thai Army, Lt. Gen. Manas Kongpan.
General Kongpan was convicted on Wednesday of trafficking and of committing an organized transnational crime.
The chief of the junta, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, responded to the news by saying the military should not be blamed for the actions of one officer.
“There are many people in this human-trafficking network,” he told reporters. “Don’t group all soldiers in the country as one.”
Witnesses, prosecutors and investigators were hounded throughout the trial. In 2015, the police officer who had first overseen the investigation and who had issued more than 150 warrants fled to Australia after numerous threats to his life.
Ultimately, 103 people pleaded not guilty to a bevy of charges that included human trafficking. One defendant died while in custody.
The court said it had found some defendants not guilty because of “unclear or insufficient evidence.”
“This may be the end of an important and unprecedented trial, but it’s been a rocky road, and it’s not ‘case closed’ for survivors of human trafficking here,” Amy A. Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights, a Southeast Asia human rights watchdog, said in a statement.
“Thailand has a long way to go to ensure justice for thousands who were exploited, tortured and killed by human traffickers during the last several years,” she said.