Police arrested the men in the Motueka area and they appeared in the Nelson District Court, where they entered no pleas and were provided bail until September 4, said a statement from the government's Immigration New Zealand (INZ) agency.

Human trafficking can carry penalties of up to 20 years, a fine of 500,000 NZ dollars (USD 419,463) or both.

A third defendant was arrested in Auckland on charges of organizing and lodging false refugee claims for the 18 Indian nationals once they arrived in New Zealand.

That offense can carry a penalty of up to seven years in jail, or a fine of up to 100,000 NZ dollars (USD 83,893) or both. INZ assistant general manager for compliance and border operations Peter Devoy said the prosecution was an extremely significant development.

“It shows how seriously we treat such allegations and the fact that this is the first prosecution for human trafficking in New Zealand sends a very strong message that we will thoroughly investigate any other case,” Devoy said in a statement.

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