A court in Myanmar sentenced 109 Rohingya refugees to five years in prison after they were caught at sea fleeing a camp in neighboring Bangladesh, said a report from Radio Free Asia, quoting sources in Myanmar.
Those convicted were reportedly part of a larger group of 228 people intercepted by the Myanmar navy on November 29 while traveling to Malaysia. They were convicted of illegal immigration in a court in Maungdaw township in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
A separate group of 90 refugees was released with warnings by the court because they were under the age of 18, and 35 children under 10 were freed on the day their boat was captured, sources said.
All had escaped from Myanmar in 2017 during a military crackdown that killed thousands of Rohingya Muslims and forced hundreds of thousands more to flee across the border into Bangladesh, in a campaign that has been described by international rights groups and the United Nations as genocide.
Tin Hlaing Oo, a lawyer defending the group in court, told RFA that the sentenced refugees, including five Myanmar nationals who had worked as the boat’s crew and two nationals of Bangladesh, had been convicted of illegal immigration and given the maximum sentence allowed under Myanmar law.
“They were leaving Bangladesh to enter Malaysia illegally. Many of them had taken refuge in Bangladesh during the incident in 2017,” he said. “Some of them have contacted our legal group, the Thazin Legal Institute, and we will appeal the verdict for them.”
A family member of one of those sentenced told RFA that the Rohingya had hoped to escape to Malaysia because of the “many problems in the refugee camps in Bangladesh,” including violence.
“I am going to Malaysia myself because I can’t live in the refugee camps any longer,” the source said. “Some people who have family members in Malaysia want to join their families there, and some go there to get married. Some take their siblings with them.”
“Making the trip isn’t easy,” he said.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Muslim village headman in Rakhine state’s Buthidaung township said that Muslims still living in Rakhine are subject to travel restrictions. They have become wary of speaking publicly about the conditions there as they are often subject to interrogations after reporting problems to the media.
Jailing Rohingya for trying to find a better life is unfair and inhumane, he said.
“Giving us two-year, three-year, or five-year prison sentences whenever we get arrested in the country isn’t fair. That shouldn’t happen,” he said. “We can’t travel anywhere now in Rakhine state. For example, we can’t go to Maungdaw or to Sittwe, the state capital, if we need to — even to get medical treatment for a health problem.”
“We’d have to take a special travel document called Form 4, which isn’t easy to get,” he said.
Nay San Lwin, co-founder of the Rohingya Liberation Coalition civil society group, called the situation unacceptable.
“This kind of imprisonment is not fair,” he said.
“According to Article 13(1) of the Immigration Act, the minimum sentence would be six months, and the maximum is five years. But the military is showing that they don’t care about the international community, which is putting pressure on them regarding the Rohingya issue,” he said.
Buthidaung’s issuance in November of an order requiring travel permits good for only three months shows that authorities are unwilling to comply with International Court of Justice demands that Rohingya be granted freedom of movement, Nay San Lwin said. – Radio Free Asia