A massive human trafficking trial began in Bangkok yesterday as a Thai court dismissed concerns that the departure of a key police investigator would have much impact on the case.
A total of 90 defendants - including a three-star army general, policemen as well as local officials - are on trial for their alleged role in human trafficking operations.
But there are fears that the case may eventually collapse, especially after the top policeman overseeing investigations quit his post and sought asylum in Australia, citing threats to his safety.
At the start of the trial yesterday, the judge played down the impact of Major-General Paween Pongsirin's departure, saying he had done his duty when he handed over the case files to state prosecutors earlier this year. Besides, there were other investigators in the case that were available for reference, she added.
The former policeman told The Straits Times from Australia that he had not been contacted by Thai authorities to give testimony, either in person or via video link.
Security was tight in court, as the first witness - a migrant - was questioned. Reporters and relatives of the accused were barred from the courtroom, and instead had to watch the live video feed of proceedings in another room.
There are more than 400 witnesses who are expected to be questioned in a trial likely to last more than a year.
The trial - which originated from the discovery of mass graves of trafficking victims in southern Thailand seven months ago - had to be moved to Bangkok because of witness intimidation.
Maj-Gen Paween caused a stir last month when he quit the police force just days before the pre-trial proceedings. He cited then a transfer order to the country's southern border provinces, where the presence of influential criminal networks would put him at risk of a revenge killing. In an interview with The Straits Times then, he lamented scant support given to his team and alleged that human traffickers were conducting "business as usual".
Earlier this month, he flew to Australia to seek asylum. In an interview with Australian media, he said his probe had been cut short by "influential people".
"There are some bad police and bad military who do these kinds of things. Unfortunately, those bad police and bad military are the ones that have power," he added.
Thai police responded initially by saying it was considering suing him for defamation.
"He should not talk about this because it could damage the country," police chief Chakthip Chaijinda was quoted by Reuters as saying.
Police later set up a panel to investigate if other human trafficking investigators working with Maj-Gen Paween had received death threats, and declared on Wednesday that they had not.
Thailand currently occupies the lowest tier in the United States' annual Trafficking in Persons report.
Migrant rights groups have for years warned about human smuggling and trafficking gangs operating near the Thai-Malaysian border, which they allege flourish with the complicity of local officials.
Some of the key groups of migrants they prey on include Bangladeshi as well as Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar who regularly travel down the Andaman Sea on crammed boats in hopes of a better life in Malaysia. Then, seven months ago, Thai security officials found a secret border jungle camp with shallow graves thought to contain the remains of such migrants. They launched a crackdown that caused smugglers to abandon thousands of migrants out at sea, sparking a regional humanitarian crisis.