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Case study: Woman who helped force thai women into sex slavery jailed

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 2019 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.

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.

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.

In sentencing, Judge Nanette 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”.