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JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — Two Indonesians and five Thais were arrested on charges of human trafficking connected with slavery in the seafood industry, Indonesian police said. They were the first suspects taken into custody since the case was revealed by The Associated Press in a report two months ago.
The arrests were made Monday and late Friday in the remote island village of Benjina, said Lt. Col. Arie Dharmanto, National Police anti-trafficking unit chief.
Five Thai boat captains and two Indonesian employees at Pusaka Benjina Resources, one of the largest fishing firms in eastern Indonesia, were taken into custody. The arrests come after the AP reported on slave-caught seafood shipped from Benjina to Thailand, where it can be exported and enter the supply chains of some of America's biggest food retailers.
"They have committed an extraordinary crime, and we will not let it happen again in Indonesia," Dharmanto said Tuesday. "We will not stop here. We will pursue those who are involved in this case, whoever they are."
Police will recommend they be charged by prosecutors. If the men go to trial, they could face jail sentences of up to 15 years and fines as high as $46,000, he said.
He said the number of suspects would likely climb because authorities are still investigating how thousands of foreign fishermen from Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand were put on fishing boats in Thailand — sometimes after being tricked or kidnapped — and brought to work in Indonesian waters where they were not allowed to leave. Many said they were beaten and forced to work up to 24 hours a day with inadequate food and unclean water. Most were paid little or nothing at all.
The yearlong AP investigation found that tainted fish can wind up in the supply chains of some of America's biggest food sellers, such as Wal-Mart, Sysco and Kroger. It can also find its way into the supply chains of some of the most popular brands of canned pet food, including Fancy Feast, Meow Mix and Iams. The companies have all said they strongly condemn labor abuse and are taking steps to prevent it, such as working with human rights groups to hold subcontractors accountable.
Gavin Gibbons, spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute, which represents about 75 percent of U.S. seafood sellers, said they are eager to see the cases prosecuted.
"This is exactly the kind of action we've called for," he said Tuesday. "We are pleased to see the government of Indonesia working swiftly to investigate and acting to arrest suspects in this incident."
In April, a week after the story was published, Indonesia's Fisheries Ministry made a dramatic rescue when officials loaded more than 300 slaves and former slaves in Benjina onto six fishing boats for a 17-hour overnight voyage to the island of Tual where they have since been housed at a makeshift camp near the port.
With 59 Cambodians returning home Monday, most of those remaining are from Myanmar, otherwise known as Burma, but a few are also from Laos. More than 200 others have also been identified in Benjina and are waiting for travel documents to go home as well.
Dharmanto said authorities planned to fly all the suspects to Indonesia's capital, Jakarta, after the investigation is completed. Police were still questioning the company's security guards, who were also expected to be named as suspects, he added.
He said the police probe 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 labor abuses. The suspects are accused of locking fishermen up for one to six months in a prison-like cell located in the company's compound in Benjina.
Police have seized five fishing boats allegedly used by the suspects for human trafficking and slavery-like practices as well as dozens of fake passports and seamen books.
Dharmanto said the arrests were made after police questioned more than 50 foreign fishermen from Myanmar and Cambodia along with 16 witnesses, including company employees, immigration and port officials.
Associated Press reporter Niniek Karmini in Jakarta, Indonesia and Martha Mendoza in San Jose, California, contributed to this report.