An army general, two politicians, and police officers were among the 62 people found guilty by a judge in the biggest human trafficking trial in Thailand's history.
- The trial began in 2015 after the discovery of shallow graves at the Thai-Malaysia border
- The harshest sentence was 94 years in jail, an army general was given 27 years
- Rights activists hope the conviction of senior officials will send a strong message
Some of those found guilty of trafficking — from a total of 103 defendants — were also convicted of taking part in organised transnational crime, forcible detention leading to death, and rape.
The trial, which began in 2015, had been marred by allegations of intimidation of witnesses, interpreters and police investigators.
A Bangkok court took more than 12 hours to deliver its ruling which rights groups said showed the Government was serious about convicting perpetrators.
"The court has sentenced 62 defendants on 13 different charges," the criminal court said in a statement on Wednesday.
In the harshest sentence given by the court, Soe Naing — widely known as Anwar, a Rohingya man who police said was a key figure behind a brutal trafficking network that ran a jungle camp where dozens died — was sentenced to 94 years in prison.
The defendants, among them Myanmar nationals, are accused of smuggling and trafficking migrants on the Thai-Malaysia border.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, head of the ruling junta, asked Thais not to blame the trafficking on military figures, a reference to the army general on trial, Manas Kongpan, the most senior of the officials arrested in 2015.
"There are many people in this human trafficking network. Don't group all soldiers in the country as one," General Prayuth told reporters.
Manas was sentenced to 27 years in prison.
The two convicted politicians, Patchuban Angchotipan, a former official in the Satun provincial government who was better known as Big Brother Tong, and Bannakong Pongphol, a former mayor of Padang Besar in Songkhla, were sentenced to 75 years and 78 years in jail respectively.
Shallow grave discoveries in 2015 launched trial
The trial began in 2015 after a Thai crackdown on trafficking gangs following the gruesome discovery of dozens of shallow graves near the Thai-Malaysia border that authorities said was part of a jungle camp where traffickers held migrants as hostages until relatives were able to pay for their release.
Many never made it out. Some of the dead are thought to have been Rohingya — a persecuted Muslim minority from Myanmar's troubled Rakhine State — although Thailand has yet to release a full report on the graves and the results of post-mortem forensic testing.
Rights groups say trafficking networks were largely left intact by the 2015 crackdown and trial.
"We believe the crackdown is only a disruption of a trafficking network but that network is still very much well in place," Amy Smith, an executive director of rights group Fortify Rights, told reporters.
Sunai Phasuk, senior Thai researcher for Human Rights Watch, expressed hope that the trial's outcome would help crack down the networks.
"The fact that there are very senior officials charged with this crime will help deter criminals in trafficking networks in the future," said Mr Sunai, who observed the court proceedings.
Thailand denies that trafficking syndicates still flourish, saying it has largely stamped out human trafficking.
Thailand has historically been a source, destination and transit country for men, women, and children who are often smuggled and trafficked from poorer, neighbouring countries including Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar to work in Thailand or further afield in Malaysia, often as labourers and sex workers.
Last month the US State Department left Thailand on a Tier 2 Watchlist, just above the lowest ranking of Tier 3, in its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, because the country did not do enough to tackle human smuggling and trafficking.