The trial of three Thai nationals charged with trafficking and abusing eight Lao workers has begun in central Thailand’s Phetchaburi province amid a crackdown on illegal migrant laborers in the Southeast Asian country.
The Laotians—all members of the same family from Sanasomboun district, in southwestern Laos’ Champasak province near the borders with Thailand and Cambodia—had worked illegally on a lemon plantation in Phetchaburi province since 2011 until they were rescued last September.
Police Lieutenant-General Thammawutt Wichianmaneechot, director of the Thai anti-human trafficking unit in Phetchaburi province, told RFA’s Lao Service that the suspects have been charged with physical assault and detention, human trafficking, forcing people under 17 years of age to perform labor, and possessing illegal weapons.
“It is the duty of the jury to decide whether or not the employers as defendants are found guilty of human trafficking because they deny that they have committed human trafficking and insist it is just a wage payment-related case,” he said.
During the trial at Phetchaburi province court on July 6, the prosecutor called four witnesses, including two police officers who showed photos of a gun illegally possessed by the accused men and of their arrests when the men tried to conceal the weapon and flee the scene.
The officers also provided as evidence their daily notes on the matter and reports of the raid police conducted to rescue the Laotians and arrest their Thai employers.
Another witness was a representative from the Labor Rights Promotion Network Foundation, who presented photos of scars on the Laotians’ bodies from injuries allegedly caused by the Thai men.
A representative from the Thai Social Development and Human Security Ministry who also testified said the eight Laotians were trafficked, beaten, and forced to perform hard labor in Thailand.
Attorneys representing the accused men denied all charges on behalf of their clients and said the evidence presented was based only on hearsay from the Laotians because the prosecutor had no photos of the alleged beatings.
Samak Thabthani, director of the Thai human trafficking prevention agency, told the court that he had provided assistance to the Laotians.
“I also repeated in court what the victims told me,” he told RFA’s Lao Service after the trial. “The opposite side denied all charges, but our lawyers will be working hard on this case. As of now the next court hearing date is still unknown.”
The eight Lao workers were not present in court because they had been sent back to Laos earlier this year after spending six months at a rehabilitation center.
Restrictions on migrant workers
The trial comes as hundreds of undocumented Laotians in Thailand recently fled the country after the Thai government on June 23 imposed new restrictions on illegal migrant workers, carrying a jail term of up to five years and a fine of up to 100,000 baht (U.S. $2,941).
Following a backlash from companies and migrant advocates, the decree was suspended for 180 days to give the migrants time to obtain the proper documents in Laos before returning to Thailand.
Laotians returning home have reported that some Thai border police are demanding money from them, however.
On Monday, Lao workers said officials charged them each 500 baht (U.S. $15) to 1,000 baht (U.S. $29) at the Thali border checkpoint in northeastern Thailand’s Loei province before they were allowed to enter Laos.
Other illegal Lao workers were detained at a checkpoint in northeastern Thailand’s Yasothorn province while traveling home by bus, according to one undocumented worker who declined to be named.
“After they got the yellow slip from the Lao embassy [in Thailand], they took a bus to Laos,” he said, in a reference to the document Lao nationals need to be able to cross the border when heading home. The embassy charges each person 500 baht for the certificate.
“Once the bus arrived in Yasothorn province, they were detained by police,” he said.
The police did not let them go and they took whatever money they had,” he said, adding that his three friends had to hand over 10,000 baht (U.S. $293) to the police.
In another case, a Laotian returning home by bus said Thai police and soldiers stopped the vehicle and ordered more than 40 Lao workers to get off.
The authorities sent the workers to the immigration checkpoint in Palan commune in Natarn district of northeastern Thailand’s Ubon Ratchathari province and collected 800 baht (U.S. $23) from each but did not provide receipts.
A Thai newspaper on Monday denied the veracity of the man’s claim, saying that the Lao worker previously told it that before the decree took effect, Thai police at border checkpoints would charge each Laotian 500-800 baht before allowing them to cross.
RFA could not reach officials at Thai police checkpoints where the incidents allegedly occurred.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.