Bangkok - A Thai man accused of masterminding the smuggling and trafficking of Rohingya migrants fleeing Myanmar has been jailed for 35 years, a court said on Thursday.
Southern Thailand has long been known as a nexus for lucrative smuggling networks through which persecuted Rohingya Muslims in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, and Bangladeshi economic migrants, pass on their way to Malaysia.
For years Thailand turned a blind eye to - and was even complicit in - the well-worn trafficking trade in the deep south.
Last year, Thailand's junta launched a belated crackdown, a move that led smugglers to abandoned hundreds of victims on boats and in squalid jungle camps, but also brought much of the trade to a halt.
On Wednesday Sunand Saengthong, an alleged trafficking kingpin, was jailed for overseeing smuggling networks.
"Overall he was sentenced to 35 years and a fine of $19 000," a spokesperson at Pak Phanang provincial court said.
Two other accomplices were sentenced to one year and six months in jail respectively.
Police arrested Sunand after a raid in January last year that uncovered 97 Rohingya, the court said in a statement.
"Witness testimonies in court found that money from the human trafficking gang was transferred to Sunand's bank account," the statement said, adding that he was "a mastermind of Rohingya trafficking", in the south.
The Asian Human Rights Commission, which has followed the prosecution, said police searched five vehicles during their raid and discovered desperate migrants crammed in so tight that some had suffocated to death. More than 40 of those Rohingya were minors.
Around one million Rohingya live in western Rakhine state, where they are forced to live in apartheid-like conditions and are denied citizenship.
For years they have fled their homeland by sea, looking for work in Muslim-majority Malaysia.
Most victims crossed the sea in rickety boats to be held in remote jungle camps where they were beaten, raped and abused until relatives paid release ransoms. They would then be moved to Malaysia.
Thailand's image has been battered in recent years by a series of human trafficking scandals - including in its lucrative fishing and food production sectors.
The kingdom's junta have vowed to clean up the country's image.
Last year's crackdown on southern smuggling routes saw more than 100 alleged traffickers arrested - including a senior army general. He and most of those detained are currently being tried in Bangkok.