A court in northern Malaysia’s Kedah state threw out a lower court’s ruling that 27 Rohingya be caned for entering the country illegally, calling it inhumane to punish refugees with strokes from a rattan stick, setting aside a lower court’s sentence following an outcry from human rights activists.
The Rohingya men were among 40 refugees convicted last month by a magistrates court on the northwestern island of Langkawi for entering Malaysia by boat without a valid permit. All 40 were also sentenced to seven months’ jail.
“These persons are Rohingya refugees who are in need of international protection due to the persecution faced by them. … As a result and in line with the international principle of non- refoulement, they cannot be returned”, defence attorney Colin Andrew told Benar News, quoting from Judge Arik’s ruling.
The judge cited several other grounds including that the Rohingya were not habitual offenders nor were they violent, so it was inhumane to punish them this way, according to the lawyer.
“Judge Arik also said that these persons are registered with UNHCR as refugees, a sentence of whipping will only add to their sufferings,” Andrew said. The judge also instructed that six 17-year-old Rohingya who are serving seven months for entering the country illegally be released to UNHCR – the United Nations refugee agency – upon completion of their sentences on July 27.
The decision has been applauded by those such as Jerald Joseph of the Malaysian Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) stating “This is definitely good news and the right direction to go when it comes to refugees, the judge also recognized that they are refugees and took note of their situation.”
Advocacy group Amnesty International (AI) also welcomed the news but in a statement called on the government to release all Rohingya who are jailed, stating their detention was “not justifiable” amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Even before the pandemic, detention solely for immigration purposes was only allowable in the most exceptional of circumstances. In the present global public health crisis, migration-related detention is not justifiable,” AI Malaysia Researcher Rachel Chhoa-Howard said.