By Anuradha Nagaraj
CHENNAI, India, March 16 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A court in southern India has sentenced a brick kiln owner to 10 years in prison for trafficking workers and keeping them in slave-like conditions, in a rare victory for victims battling slow and drawn-out trials.
In last week's judgment, made public on Wednesday, the court in Ramanagara, Karnataka state, also fined the kiln owner 16,000 rupees ($240) for trafficking, confining and exploiting 12 bonded labourers from six families.
Such successful convictions do not happen very often, public prosecutor M.D. Raghu told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"The victims gave very strong statements in court, describing their ordeal and stood by it throughout the trial," Raghu added.
Campaigners on Thursday called the court ruling "encouraging" and said the sentencing was significant, following a 2013 amendment to Indian law which added charges of trafficking to every bonded labour case.
India banned the practice of bonded labour in 1976, but the country is still home to 11.7 million bonded labourers, according to the International Labour Organisation.
Despite the high prevalence of such cases, only 92 cases of bonded labour were registered in 2015, of which just one resulted in a conviction and the imprisonment of four people, government data shows.
More than 90 percent of the cases filed under India's Bonded Labour Abolition Act and 80 percent filed under human trafficking were pending in courts across the country in 2015.
"This judgment is important because it uses the amended law to increase the sentencing for the accused," said rights advocate David Sunder Singh.
"Previously, the sentencing has gone up to only seven years in the region."
The kiln owner ran operations for over four years from 2010 to August 2014, the prosecution said.
He had trafficked four families from their village after paying an advance of up to 50,000 rupees ($760), it said.
He falsely promised them "good wages" of 350 rupees ($5) for every 1,000 bricks they made, but did not pay them even the prescribed minimum wages, the court heard.
The labourers were made to work for 13 hours a day, six days a week, the prosecution said. They were only allowed to go outside the kiln one afternoon a week for a few hours to buy provisions.
Authorities have freed around 282,000 workers trapped in bonded labour in 18 Indian states since 1978, according to 2016 government data, although non-governmental organisations question these figures and the real extent of debt bondage across the country.
($1 = 65.4600 Indian rupees) (Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj, Editing by Ed Upright; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)