Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions

Prosecuting an ‘insidious trade’ - Woman who helped force Thai women into sex slavery jailed

Year: 
2018-2019
Category: 
Human Trafficking and Slavery
Location: 
New South Wales

On 15 November 2019, Ms Rungnapha Kanbut (57) was sentenced to a term of imprisonment for slavery offences relating to two Thai women.

Following a five-and-a-half-week trial, a NSW District Court jury found Ms Kanbut guilty in May of two counts each of intentionally possessing a slave, exercising powers of ownership over a slave and dealing with the proceeds of crime. She was sentenced to eight years, two months and 30 days imprisonment, with a non-parole period of five years, two months and 29 days.

The two Thai women voluntarily came to Australia to do sex work in 2004-2005. Ms Kanbut confiscated their passports when they arrived in Sydney and told them they would need to pay off a $45,000 debt.

The women’s travel to Australia was organised by a man they knew only as “Chang”. Chang took naked photographs of them and threatened to post the photos on the internet if the women attempted to run away.

The victims often had to work up to 12 hours a day at multiple Sydney brothels, with almost all of their earnings going towards their “debts”.

An Australian Federal Police investigation led to Ms Kanbut’s arrest in 2017 when she returned to Australia from overseas.

Challenges for prosecutors – Definition of slavery

Significant legal argument took place throughout the trial concerning the legal definition of slavery, and the application of that definition to this case. The jury also requested information on the legal definition of “slavery”.

To assist the Judge, the prosecution provided submissions setting out the elements and definition of slavery. The Judge ultimately ruled in favour of the prosecution’s interpretation of the elements and directed the jury in accordance with those principles.

Judge Nanette Williams told the jury the law defines slavery as “the condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised, including where such a condition results from a debt or a contract made by the person”.

Working with witnesses

In matters such as these, much of the prosecution’s case relies on the testimony of witnesses, in this instance, of the victims themselves. CDPP prosecutors take great care to ensure that witnesses are treated with respect and dignity.

Language and cultural barriers can have a significant impact on how well victims and witnesses understand what they are going through and what is happening during their case. The CDPP’s Witness Assistance Service is dedicated to supporting vulnerable victims and witnesses during the court process, including the provision of interpreters and other culturally appropriate support where required.

Another factor that can have a significant impact on a victim’s wellbeing is the amount of time a case takes to prosecute. In complex matters, especially those with international elements, it can take many years for an investigation to reach its conclusion and come to trial. Court processes, including appeals, can also add to the amount of time victims and witnesses are involved in a case.

Investigative agencies may provide case officer support to victims, in addition to the services available through the CDPP. As an example, AFP case officers are often involved from the very start of an investigation and develop close relationships with the victims they are supporting. These case officers will be involved for the duration of the investigation and court case, working closely with the CDPP to ensure vulnerable victims and witnesses can access the full range of support available to them.  

More information is available about the CDPP’s Witness Assistance Program can be found on our website for victims and witnesses of crime.

Impact on victims

Slavery offences, as with all crimes involving human exploitation, have a profound, and often long-lasting, effect on victims. Through an interpreter, one of Ms Kanbut’s victims told the court she had been forced to service up to 10 clients a day, and to work while she had her period.

“I will have to live with the scars of these experiences for the rest of my life,” she said.

Ms Kanbut’s second victim said she was treated badly by some clients, including being spat on and bruised, but was told to “put up with it until the time was up and kick the customer out”.

Sentencing

In sentencing, Judge Williams said although Ms Kanbut was not without compassion and had positive rehabilitative prospects, she had effectively kept the two women in a prison with no bars. Judge Williams said her role in the slavery operation was pivotal and hands on.

Judge Williams said slavery detracts fundamentally from the human condition by taking away basic human rights.

“It reduces those who are subjected to it to being little more than a commodity,” Judge Williams said. “Those who choose to involve themselves in slavery reap significant financial benefits at the great cost of those enslaved. Any society which fails to denounce slavery is gravely diminished.”

Judge Williams said general deterrence played an important role in sentencing for slavery offences in particular, to send a firm message to organisers and recruiters. The sentence needed to reflect that Australia would not condone being a destination for the trade, and to ensure that the financiers, managers and organisers of this “insidious trade” cannot slip through the net.

Summary of charges:

  • 2 x Intentionally possess a slave, contrary to s270.3(1)(a) of the Criminal Code (Cth)
  • 2 x Intentionally exercise over a slave any of the powers attaching to the right of ownership, contrary to s270.3(1)(a) of the Criminal Code (Cth)
  • 2 x Dealing in proceeds of crime – money or property worth $10,000 or more, contrary to s400.6(1) of the Criminal Code (Cth)