BANGKOK (AP) -- Prosecutors in Thailand called their first witnesses Tuesday in a major human trafficking trial with 92 defendants, including an army general, implicated in smuggling, kidnappings and the deaths of dozens of people.
The case came to light after more than 30 bodies were discovered last year in shallow graves in southern Thailand, exposing networks that trafficked Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Myanmar and held them for ransom in jungle camps before granting them passage to Malaysia.
The case drew more attention when its lead police investigator, Maj. Gen. Paween Pongsirin, fled to Australia and told media there he feared for his life after his findings implicated "influential people" in Thailand who wanted to silence him. Paween said he was too afraid to return to Thailand and planned to seek political asylum in Australia.
Several high-ranking officials were charged, including Lt. Gen. Manas Kongpaen, a senior army officer who was based in southern Thailand, several policemen, a powerful provincial mayor and local politicians. The 92 defendants have been charged with human trafficking and a variety of other charges. All have pleaded not guilty.
They were led into Bangkok's Criminal Court in prison uniforms and were shackled at their ankles.
Human rights groups have long accused Thai authorities of collusion in the trafficking industry, but officials have routinely denied the claims.
A sweeping investigation was launched after 36 bodies, believed to be migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh, were exhumed from abandoned jungle camps near the Thai-Malaysian border last May.
The first witness Tuesday was a Rohingya man, whose name was not disclosed to the media, who said he was trafficked from Rakhine state in western Myanmar. He said a broker approached him several times offering construction work and a better future in Malaysia. He said the broker told him he would travel on a big boat and have a private room with TV, air-conditioning and three meals a day. Once on the boat he found 270 people crammed on board, strict rules that barred walking around and constant surveillance by guards armed with rifles. During a two-week boat journey, he said, he was served one meal a day of rice with a single chilli.
In addition to those charged, dozens of police officers in southern provinces were removed from their posts and investigated for possible involvement in trafficking syndicates.