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Malaysia charges four over mass graves, human trafficking camps found in 2015

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA (AP) – Four Thai nationals were charged on Friday under Malaysia’s anti-trafficking laws in connection with the 2015 discovery of mass graves believed to be of Rohingya Muslims and Bangladeshis held in camps in a hilly jungle area on the country’s border with Thailand.

Home Minister Saifuddin Nasution said in a statement that the four were among 10 Thai citizens the government had sought for extradition in 2017 over the tragedy at Wang Kelian in northern Perlis state that had shocked the nation. Following cooperation with Thai authorities, he said the four men were caught and extradicted to Malaysia on Thursday to face charges.

In May 2015, Malaysian police announced the discovery of a cluster of abandoned jungle camps used by human traffickers in Wang Kelian and later exhumed 139 bodies from mass graves there. The findings followed a similar discovery earlier the same month by Thai police, who unearthed 36 bodies from shallow graves on the Thai side of the border.

Malaysian police forensic team members excavate an unmarked grave in Wang Burma at the Malaysia-Thailand border outside Wang Kelian, Malaysia. PHOTO: AP

The discoveries exposed hidden networks of jungle camps run by human smugglers, who for years held people captive while extorting ransoms from their families. Most of those who fell victim to the trafficking networks were members of Myanmar’s persecuted Rohingya minority or impoverished migrants from Bangladesh, part of a wave of people who fled their homelands in search of better lives.

The four men were escorted on Friday by armed police to a lower court in Perlis where they were charged with human trafficking, which carries up to 15 years’ imprisonment upon conviction, local media reported.

Malaysia’s English-language dailies New Straits Times and the Star said the four, whose ages range from 30 to 58, were charged with trafficking two Myanmar nationals in Wang Kelian. No pleas were recorded and they were disallowed bail, the reports said. Their case will be transferred to the high court for hearing.

Malaysia had already charged five foreigners with trafficking-related offences in connection with the Wang Kelian camps. Thailand meanwhile, convicted 62 people, including nine Thai officials, of trafficking crimes.

A joint report in 2019 by the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia and Fortify Rights found gaps in the investigation and possible obstruction of justice. It said Malaysian authorities were aware of the existence of the camps, with raids on one of the sites where trafficking victims were held in cages months earlier. The bodies were only exhumed in May with no explanation for the delay since the raids, which hampered forensic efforts to determine their cause of death, according to the report.

An inquiry set up by the government later said no Malaysian enforcement officials, public servants or local citizens were involved in trafficking syndicates but found negligence by border patrols. It also said Malaysian enforcement agencies failed to follow standard operating procedures that significantly affected their investigation.

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