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Thailand arrests 2 alleged brokers who sent slaves onto boats, as new fishing law takes effect

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BANGKOK — Two Thai men described as key figures in a human trafficking ring that provides slave crews for fishing boats were arrested, officials said Wednesday, as new regulations aimed at cracking down on illegal fishing took effect.

The two suspects were the latest to be arrested following an Associated Press investigation into slavery in Southeast Asia's fishing industry.

In April, the EU gave Thailand six months to drastically combat illegal and unregulated fishing or face a seafood import ban. Thailand is a major exporter of seafood, with yearly revenues of almost 5 billion euros ($5.4 billion), and an EU ban would seriously affect the industry.

Officials from Thailand's Department of Special Investigation told a news conference the two men were "big figures" in a human trafficking syndicate in Samut Sakorn province, the country's biggest fishing hub, and had lured about 60 victims a year since 2008.

Chayuthphong Charoenporn, 50, and Samruay Chatkrod, 53, hired middlemen to find workers at train stations, bus terminals and other public places, said Lt. Col. Komvich Padhanarath.

Komvich said the middlemen would approach men who looked poor and ask them if they wanted jobs and then take them to a shelter where they were sometimes drugged or given alcohol to keep quiet — and then sold to boat owners for 30,000 baht ($900) per person. The laborers were then taken without their consent to fishing boats near Ambon island in Indonesia, he said.

PHOTO: An official from Thailand's Department of Special Investigation points at a chart showing suspects in a human trafficking ring during a news conference in Bangkok, Thailand,  Wednesday, July 1, 2015.  Thai officials said Wednesday they arrested two key figures in a human trafficking ring that provides slave crews for the country's fishing boats, the latest move in a crackdown on widespread labor abuses in Southeast Asia's fishing industry. Title of chart in Thai says, "Human Trafficking Network". (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)
An official from Thailand's Department of Special Investigation points at a chart showing suspects in a human trafficking ring during a news conference in Bangkok, Thailand, Wednesday, July 1, 2015. Thai officials said Wednesday they arrested two key figures in a human trafficking ring that provides slave crews for the country's fishing boats, the latest move in a crackdown on widespread labor abuses in Southeast Asia's fishing industry. Title of chart in Thai says, "Human Trafficking Network". (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

"These two illegal brokers are quite big figures," said Paisith Sungkahapong, director of the human trafficking division at the DSI, which is Thailand's equivalent of the FBI. He said they admitted to human trafficking, which carries a maximum penalty of life in prison or capital punishment, but denied the charges of arbitrary detention.

"They were trying to persuade people and deceive those people to work in the fishing boats," Paisith said, adding that many of the laborers didn't know they were agreeing to work on boats let alone in a foreign country. "They did not know they would be working overseas."

Also Wednesday, the Thai government's new Fisheries Act took effect. The law was drafted to improve official oversight and impose stricter measures to prevent illegal practices in the Thai fishing industry, which has come under mounting pressure from the EU.

Under the new regulations, all fishing boats are required to hold licenses, registration and legal fishing equipment and navigation systems that can be traced by authorities.

The new rules have met with resistance from fishermen who demanded that the deadline of July 1 be extended. At least 1,000 fishing trawlers in the southern province of Songkhla threatened to go on strike from Friday and asked the government to help them through the transition.

"They are now in deep trouble because if they go out, they are afraid they will be arrested. Then they will have to pay a fine of more than 100,000 baht ($30,000) or go to jail. It's too much," said Praporn Ekouru, the Songkhla Fishery Association's chairman.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha on Wednesday asked for cooperation from the fishing companies to comply with the new rules.

"If we don't pass (the EU) evaluation, will they share the responsibility of losing the products worth more than 2 billion baht that we can't sell to the entire world?" he asked, pleading with them not to strike.

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