Urairat Soimee never thought she would leave her small village in northern Thailand, not even to visit Bangkok. So, she jumped at the chance when a neighbour offered to set her up with a waitressing job in Japan.
Urairat, then 29 years old, arrived in Tokyo in 2000 before she was sent to the port city of Yokkaichi, only to discover that she hadn’t been hired to wait tables, but essentially as a sex slave in a brothel.
That fateful decision not only changed what turned out to be the brief final years of her life, but also led to a landmark legal battle in Thailand that is continuing from the grave on her behalf, says her lawyer, Siriwan Vongkietpaisan.
The outcome could have far-reaching consequences for other human-trafficking victims and open a floodgate of claims.
After five months of suffering under the eyes of a Japanese-Thai yakuza criminal gang, Urairat hatched a plan to escape with another Thai friend who was also forced to work at the brothel.
But their plan didn’t work, and the gang tried to stop them. The mama-san, or madam, who ran the brothel was killed in the melee, and Urairat’s friend was arrested and deported.
Urairat and a Thai man who tried to help her escape were sentenced to prison. She received seven years on a robbery charge, after police found money and jewellery that they believed belonged to the mama-san in her purse.
The man who helped her received 10 years for the mama-san’s death.
From inside the prison, Urairat continued to fight for her rights for five years, arguing that she was the victim and had been duped into prostitution. A Japanese court heard her case, but no action was taken against the traffickers. Her lawyer believes poor translation prevented the court from fully understanding her circumstances.
While in prison, Urairat began suffering sharp pains in her abdomen, which turned out to be ovarian cancer, Siriwan says. She underwent surgery to remove her uterus and ovaries, but the cancer had spread around her body. Japanese authorities sent her back home in 2005 to live out her days, the lawyer says.
When she returned, Urairat decided to seek justice in the Thai courts.
With the help of Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission, she filed a civil suit against the sex traffickers who brought her to Japan, hoping to prevent other women from suffering what she went through.
”Urairat was not the first and will not be the last person to be tricked into the cycle of prostitution. But her case can serve as an excellent example for any woman who is suffering like her,” Siriwan says.
Urairat’s lawsuit, which is still proceeding in her family’s name despite her death, seeks 4,6-million baht ($122Ã‚Â 000) in damages from Patama Kosaka, the Thai neighbour who lied to her about Japan, as well as Patama’s parents.
The three have already been found guilty of criminal charges that included seeking women for prostitution and are serving 13-year prison sentences. Those charges were filed by Urairat’s friend who was deported from Japan as well as her family.
Patama’s parents, both in their mid-60s, are out on bail because of their age, while Patama is fighting an appeal but remains in prison.
The new case is the first time civil charges have ever been filed in Thailand against international sex traffickers, an option that Siriwan says many women do not realise is available to them.
The trial, in the northern Thai city of Phetchabun, is expected to be lengthy because evidence and witnesses will have to be collected both in Thailand and Japan. But it could set a precedent that would give trafficking victims a new legal recourse as they seek justice.
Thailand has no law specifically against trafficking, but other laws can be applied to the case.
”We can’t wait for laws against trafficking to be approved [before taking action]. By then more people will have been abused,” Siriwan says.
Anti-trafficking laws are still in the drafting stage in a parliamentary committee, and it is unclear when they might move forward.
”Her case will be an excellent example for everyone — traffickers, victims and lawyers,” she adds.
Siriwan hopes the case will scare traffickers. If the court finds in Urairat’s favour, their assets could be seized if they cannot pay the penalty.
Urairat had hoped to live until her first court appearance, but her health was too weak and she died in May.
”She always said that she had done nothing wrong, that she was the victim and that she did not want anyone else to suffer like her,” Siriwan says. ”She wanted to live until her first day in court, but she could not. I promised her that this case would not end until she received justice.”
”It’s not easy for a woman to stand up for herself,” says Naiyana Supapung, a member of the human rights commission. ”She was brave. She was a good example to help society understand that she was the victim.” — AFP