Human rights groups have urged a Malaysian court to set aside caning sentences handed down to 27 Rohingya Muslim refugees from Myanmar, describing the punishment as tantamount to torture.
In June, a court on Malaysia’s Langkawi island sentenced 40 Rohingya refugees to seven months’ jail for arriving in the country by boat without a valid permit, Collin Andrew, a lawyer representing the refugees, told Reuters news agency.
Twenty-seven of the men were also sentenced to caning, a penalty that Andrew was seeking to overturn in court on Wednesday.
John Quinley of Fortify Rights, which monitors the situation of the Muslim-majority Rohingya, urged the Malaysian court to drop the charges.
“These Rohingya are refugees and are potentially trafficking survivors,” Quinley told Al Jazeera. “Caning should not be used as any form of punishment. These Rohingya are fleeing genocide and they deserve protection.”
Malaysia has long been a favoured destination for the Rohingya who has suffered decades of discrimination in Myanmar. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague is currently investigating allegations of genocide against Myanmar over its treatment of the Rohingya, hundreds of thousands of whom fled the western state of Rakhine amid a brutal military crackdown in 2017.
Human Rights Watch said Malaysia should ensure the refugees “are protected in accordance with international law”.
“Malaysia is unlawfully treating as criminals people who fled atrocities in Myanmar,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Rohingya arriving by boat should be considered as refugees who have a right to protection under international law.”
Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN convention on refugees and has recently turned away boats and detained hundreds of Rohingya.
Earlier this week, the rights group Amnesty International also urged Malaysia not to cane the refugees, saying it was “cruel and inhumane”.
“To inflict such a violent punishment as judicial caning amounts to torture,” Rachel Chhoa-Howard, Amnesty’s researcher for Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Brunei said in a statement.
As of the end of June, there were some 177,940 refugees and asylum-seekers registered with the UNHCR in Malaysia. Most are from Myanmar, including 101,320 Rohingya.
“Malaysia’s jailing of #Rohingya refugees is bad enough, but subjecting them to the torture of caning shows little regard for their basic humanity,” says @hrw's @Reaproy today. The #Malaysian government must stop persecuting refugees. Our latest: https://t.co/LDkK3GrHkT pic.twitter.com/AbcANtpWCB
— Stephanie McLennan (@StephMcLennan) July 22, 2020
The immigration department and the attorney general’s office did not immediately respond to Reuters’s request for comment.
Under Malaysia’s Immigration Act, anyone who illegally enters the country can face a 10,000 ringgit ($2,345) fine, a jail term of as many as five years as well as six strokes of the cane.
Courts can choose not to hand down the caning sentence on humanitarian grounds if the migrant charged is a refugee and does not have any prior criminal history, Andrew said.
“So it’s quite unusual for the court to impose caning against Rohingya in this case,” he said.
Lawyers have also sought a review of a case against six Rohingya teenagers, including two girls, who Andrew said had been wrongly tried and convicted as adults.
This month, the court dismissed a case against 51 Rohingya minors who were also charged for violating immigration laws, he said.