By Alisa Tang
BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A Thai court on Wednesday sentenced a man to 35 years in prison for trafficking ethnic Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, in a high-profile case that led to the discovery of jungle camps, mass graves and an international trafficking ring.
On Jan. 11, 2015, police intercepted five vehicles at a checkpoint in Hua Sai district of Nakhon Si Thammarat province, discovering 98 "very thin and tired men, women and children".
Of the group, 42 were boys and girls younger than 14, and one Rohingya was dead.
Sunand, also known as Ko Mit Saengthong, was arrested in connection with this case. Police evidence against him included data from mobile phones seized from the drivers of the vehicles and bank transactions linking him to a trafficking syndicate.
On Wednesday, a court in southern Nakhon Si Thammarat province found Sunand guilty of human trafficking, enslavement, and harboring aliens, according to human rights lawyer Janjira Janpaew, who has been monitoring the case.
In addition to the prison sentence, Sunand was fined 660,000 baht ($19,000).
"We didn't think that the court was going to come down this hard, with 35 years. The punishment was more than we had expected," Janjira told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone.
Two other defendants in the case, Suriya Yodrak and Warachai Chadathong, were found guilty of illegally bringing aliens into Thailand and sentenced to a year in prison. The court reduced the sentence of Suriya, who pleaded guilty, to six months.
The Rohingya face persecution and poverty in Myanmar, and after deadly religious violence erupted there in 2012, tens of thousands began fleeing by boat in an effort to get to Malaysia.
Human traffickers, taking advantage of the lucrative smuggling operations, began holding the Rohingya for ransom in crude camps hidden in the jungle along the Thai-Malaysia border.
The discovery of the mass graves spurred a massive crackdown by authorities, effectively halting the smuggling boats.
There are at least eight other court cases related to the Rohingya trafficking rings, according to the Migrant Working Group, which is monitoring the cases.
One of the major ongoing trials includes at least 88 defendants and some 500 witnesses.
(Reporting by Alisa Tang @alisatang, editing by Katie Nguyen. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, corruption and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories)