By Aukkarapon Niyomyat and Amy Sawitta Lefevre
BANGKOK, Nov 10 (Reuters) - Eighty eight people suspected of human trafficking were brought before a Bangkok court on Tuesday for examination of evidence and witnesses ahead of a trial, following a crackdown on Thailand's lucrative smuggling syndicates.
The examination of witnesses is expected to take four days, and will herald the start of what is expected to be a lengthy trial process where convictions are far from certain.
The investigation and arrests followed the discovery in May of 30 bodies in a grave near a human trafficking camp on a hillside deep in a jungle near the Thailand-Malaysia border, which sparked an international outcry.
However, some rights groups have questioned Thailand's commitment to end the illegal trade following the resignation on the weekend of a senior policeman in the investigation.
Major General Paween Pongsirin, whose team led many of the arrests, said on Monday an order to transfer him to Thailand's south would expose him to revenge by members of trafficking syndicates still at large.
Paween said he would disband his unit, raising concerns about protection for police officers and whether a lack of protection would dent the effectiveness of the trials following previous incidents of witness intimidation.
"I am truly sorry about this," Paween told reporters outside the court. "I still want to be a policeman and be useful to society."
Illegal migrants, many of them Rohingya Muslims from eastern Myanmar and Bangladesh facing religious and ethnic persecution, often brave dangerous journeys by sea to reach Malaysia and Thailand. The migrants are often held for ransom in squalid detention camps and according to some accounts face torture and starvation.
The 88 suspects, who were brought to Bangkok in two buses, include two men who police have said are among the kingpins of a human trafficking network.
Patchuban Angchotipan is a former official in the provincial government of the southern province of Satun, while Lieutenant General Manas Kongpan previously headed a military-run operation to intercept migrants in the Andaman Sea.
Around 40 relatives of the suspects turned up at the court to show their support.
(Additional reporting by Juarawee Kittisilpa and Panarat Thepgumpanat; Writing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Richard Pullin)
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