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Thailand sentences man to 35 in jail for trafficking Rohingyas

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Rohingya refugees pass food supplies dropped by a Thai army helicopter to others aboard a boat drifting in Thai waters off the southern island of Koh Lipe in the Andaman Sea, May 14, 2015. (Photo by AFP)

A court in Thailand has sentenced a man to 35 years in prison for masterminding the trafficking of Rohingya Muslims, who have been fleeing violent prosecution by extremist Buddhists, from Myanmar.

A court in Thailand’s southern Nakhon Si Thammarat Province on Wednesday found Sunand Saengthong, also known as Ko Mit Saengthong, guilty of charges of human trafficking, enslavement, and harboring foreign nationals.

Apart from the long jail sentence, the court also ordered him to pay a fine of 660,000 baht (19,000 dollars).

Sunand had been arrested in January last year after police intercepted five vehicles at a checkpoint in the Hua Sai district of the province and found 98 “very thin and tired men, women and children,” packed inside them, struggling for life.

According to the Asian Human Rights Commission, the Rohingya refugees, 40 of them minors, had been crammed in the vehicles so tightly that some of them had suffocated to death.

The tragic discovery of those ethnic Rohingya people was followed by a further discovery of squalid jungle camps, mass graves and an international human trafficking ring.

“Witness testimonies in court found that money from the human trafficking gang was transferred to Sunand’s bank account,” the court said in a statement on Wednesday, adding that he was “a mastermind of Rohingya trafficking” in the south.

Rohingya refugees, who were found at sea on a boat, stand in line as they are repatriated across the Myanmar-Bangladesh border in Rakhine State, June 2015. (Photo by AFP)

Most of these people had crossed the sea in rickety boats to be held in remote camps in neighboring Thailand, where they were beaten, sometimes to death, raped and abused until their relatives paid release ransoms. They would then be transported to their ideal destination, Malaysia.

Rakhine State in Myanmar is home to the Rohingya Muslim minority, who are labeled “Bengali” by hard-line Buddhists. Many government officials brand the Rohingya Muslims as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh even though many can trace their ancestry back generations in Myanmar.

The grim situation has forced some 140,000 people, mainly Rohingyas but also people from other minorities, to be trapped in the displacement camps since being driven from their homes by waves of Buddhist violence four years ago.

On June 20, the UN human rights office said Rohingyas in the Southeast Asian country were subject to multiple and aggravated forms of human rights violations, including citizenship denial, forced labor and sexual violence.

Rohingya and other Muslims have faced torture, neglect, and repression in Myanmar for many years.

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