Indonesia opens trials of 6 charged with trafficking enslaved men on boats to catch seafood

TUAL, Indonesia – An Indonesian court opened the trials Monday of five Thais and an Indonesian charged with human trafficking connected with slavery in the seafood industry.

The suspects were arrested in the remote island village of Benjina in May after the slavery was revealed by The Associated Press in a report two months earlier.

The defendants were being tried separately by a three-judge panel led by Edy Toto Purba, at the District Courtin Tual, a municipality in southeastern Maluku province, about 2,900 kilometres (1,800 miles) east of the capital, Jakarta.

The six whose trials began Monday are Indonesian Muklis Ohoitenan, Thai captain Youngyut Nitiwongchaeron, 53, and four countrymen — Boonsom Jaika, Surachai Maneephong, Hatsaphon Phaetjakreng and Somchit Korraneesuk.

The trials of two other Indonesians, Hermanwir Martino and Yopi Hanorsian, are scheduled to start on Tuesday.

All are charged with violating a 2007 law against people smuggling that carries a maximum jail sentence of up to 15 years and fines as high as $46,000.

The eight defendants are employees at Pusaka Benjina Resources, one of the largest fishing firms in eastern Indonesia.

They are accused of locking up fishermen for one to six months in a prison-like cell located in the company’s compound in Benjina.

An investigation by Indonesian police found that hundreds of foreign fishermen were recruited in Thailand and brought to Indonesia using fake immigration papers and seamen books and were subjected to brutal labour abuses.

At least five fishing boats allegedly used by the suspects for human trafficking and slavery-like practices were confiscated, along with dozens of fake passports and seamen books.

More than 2,000 men from Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos have been rescued and sent home this year from brutal conditions at sea, liberated as a result of an Associated Press investigation into seafood brought to the U.S. from the slave island. Some had been held captive more than a decade after being trafficked onto Thai trawlers.

Also, a multi-million dollar Thai-Indonesian fishing business has been shut down.