A Thai court sentenced an alleged kingpin to 35 years in prison today for smuggling and trafficking Rohingya migrants from Myanmar.
On Wednesday, a court in southern Nakhon Si Thammarat province found Sunand Saengthong guilty of human trafficking and enslavement.
"Overall he was sentenced to 35 years and a fine of 660,000 baht ($19,000)," a spokesman at Pak Phanang provincial court told AFP.
"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 Janpaew, a human rights lawyer was quoted as saying by Reuters.
Sunand's two other accomplices Suriya Yodrak and Warachai Chadathong were found guilty of lesser crimes and sentenced to one year and six months in jail respectively. They were sentenced for illegally bringing aliens into Thailand.
"Witness testimonies in court found that money from the human trafficking gang was transferred to Sunand's bank account," the court statement said, adding that he was "a mastermind of Rohingya trafficking" in the south.
Sunand was arrested after a police raid in January led to the discovery of 98 Rohingya men, women and children, of which 42 were boys and girls younger than 14 years of age. The Asian Human Rights Commission said the migrants crammed in so tight that some had suffocated to death.
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.
Around one million Rohingya live in western Rakhine state, where they are forced to live in apartheid-like conditions and are denied citizenship. 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.
(WION with inputs from agencies)