Thai judge hands down verdicts in major trafficking trial

BANGKOK - A judge began handing down verdicts in Thailand's biggest human trafficking trial on Wednesday before dozens of defendants, including a Thai army general, accused of smuggling and trafficking migrants on the Thai-Malaysia border.

The legal process in handing down verdicts is lengthy in Thailand and may take hours before the judge reveals the exact details of the verdicts to a packed Bangkok court.

The trafficking trial involves 103 defendants ranging from Myanmar nationals to Thai police officers and local politicians.

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 which 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 those who died 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.

The trial has been marred by allegations of intimidation against witnesses, interpreters and police investigators.

Rights groups say trafficking networks were largely left intact by the 2015 crackdown and trial.

"We believe that 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 Reuters.

"There needs to be more prosecution against traffickers as well as more work on rehabilitation of trafficking victims," Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher on Thailand at Human Rights Watch, told Reuters.

Thailand's government denies that trafficking syndicates are still flourishing and has said it has largely eliminated human trafficking in the country.

Journalists were not allowed in the court room on Wednesday but proceedings were relayed on television screens provided by the court.

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 laborers 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 it did not do enough to tackle human smuggling and trafficking.