Malaysia: Investigate Return of 1,086 Myanmar Nationals

Click to expand Image

Image taken from a video of an immigration truck with security guards and unidentified people on the road to Lumut Naval Base on Tuesday, February 23, 2021 in Lumut, Malaysia. 
© AP Photo

(Bangkok) – The Malaysian government should urgently investigate the Immigration Department’s return of 1,086 Myanmar nationals to Myanmar in defiance of a court order, Human Rights Watch said today.

On February 23, 2021, the Malaysian High Court granted a temporary stay of deportation for 1,200 Myanmar nationals in custody to allow judicial review. Despite the court order, immigration authorities transferred 1,086 of them to the custody of the Myanmar navy for return to Myanmar.

Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin should order the Immigration Department to grant the United Nations refugee office, UNHCR, immediate access to everyone in immigration detention to assess and determine whether they are recognized refugees, qualify as refugees, or have grounds to seek asylum.

“Malaysia’s immigration authorities have shown a blatant disregard both for the basic rights of Myanmar nationals and an order by the Malaysian High Court,” said Linda Lakhdhir, Asia legal advisor. “The immigration director-general has put lives at risk by sending people back to a country now ruled again by a military that has a long track record of punishing people for political dissent or their ethnicity.”

In a letter dated February 11, 2021 “regarding the repatriation for 1,200 undocumented Myanmar nationals,” the Myanmar embassy in Kuala Lumpur asked Malaysia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs for “permission” for three navy ships to dock at the Lumut Naval Base in Perak State on February 21 and depart on February 23. Malaysia’s director-general of immigration, Khairul Dzaimee Daud, publicly confirmed the arrangement on February 11.

On February 15, Daud asserted that the Myanmar nationals to be returned would not include UNHCR “cardholders” or Rohingya refugees. Human Rights Watch, Fortify Rights, and others called for Malaysia to allow UNHCR, which has been denied access to Malaysian immigration detention centers since August 2019, to have access to the detainees to determine whether any were recognized refugees or had grounds to qualify as refugees. That access was never granted.  

Despite lack of access, Asylum Access and Amnesty International, in their application for judicial review filed on February 22, said they received information indicating that at least three UNHCR cardholders were among those scheduled for return. The groups also received information indicating that at least 17 children with one or more parent in Malaysia were among those scheduled for return. On February 23, the High Court granted review and ordered a halt to the deportations until after a hearing to be held at 10 a.m. on February 24.

Malaysia’s Immigration Department has provided no information regarding the approximately 114 Myanmar nationals who were not transferred to the custody of the Myanmar navy, but again asserted that it did not send back any Rohingya refugees or asylum seekers. 

“Given Malaysia’s prior claims that no refugee cardholders were among those scheduled for return, the Immigration Department’s assurances carry little weight,” Lakhdhir said. “Without a full and transparent investigation into these returns and an order permitting UNHCR access to all detainees, refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia are at risk of prolonged detention and return to persecution.”

As of December 2020, more than 178,000 refugees were registered with UNHCR in Malaysia. More than 86 percent are from Myanmar, including more than 100,000 Rohingya, 22,000 Chin, and 29,000 from other ethnic communities. The total number of refugees in Malaysia, including those from Myanmar, is likely much higher.

More than one million ethnic and religious minorities from Myanmar have fled persecution, protracted human rights violations, and mass atrocity crimes by the Myanmar military in the past decade. On February 1, the Myanmar military overthrew the democratically elected government. Since the coup, Myanmar security forces have used excessive and unnecessary lethal force against peaceful protesters, conducted hundreds of arbitrary arrests, amended laws to strip away rights, and blocked internet access nationwide.  

The international legal principle of nonrefoulement prohibits countries from returning any person on its territory or under its jurisdiction to a country where they may face persecution, torture, or other serious harm. Although Malaysia is not a party to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol, nonrefoulement is recognized as part of customary international law and is binding on all states.

Given the Myanmar military’s repression of critics of the coup or the junta, as well as the military’s record of abuses against ethnic minorities, Malaysia’s failure to provide fair asylum procedures or allow UNHCR to make refugee determinations violates the government’s international legal obligations, Human Rights Watch said.

Director-General Daud did not specify whether the 17 children identified by Asylum Access and Amnesty International, or any other children with a parent in Malaysia, were among those returned to Myanmar. Separating children from their parents would violate Malaysia’s obligations under the Convention on Rights of the Child, to which Malaysia is a party. Under that convention, children should not be separated from their parents unless doing so is in the best interests of the child.

The Malaysian government should thoroughly investigate the actions of the Immigration Department in this case, take appropriate disciplinary or legal action against anyone acting in violation of the court order, and put in place rules and regulations to ensure that any future returns are in full compliance with international law, Human Rights Watch said. The government should grant UNHCR immediate access to all immigration detention facilities to exercise its mandate to determine the refugee status of all detainees and facilitate durable solutions, including integration in Malaysia, for those recognized as refugees. The government should also ratify the Refugee Convention and establish asylum procedures consistent with international standards for stateless people and foreign nationals at risk of persecution in their home countries.

“Malaysia’s Immigration Department should recognize that it cannot operate above the law,” Lakhdhir said. “With Myanmar’s brutal military back in power, the risks of returning Myanmar nationals fearing return are higher than ever.”


China: Baseless Imprisonments Surge in Xinjiang

Click to expand Image

A perimeter fence around what is officially known as a” vocational skills education center” in Dabancheng in China’s Xinjiang region, September 2018. 
© 2018 Reuters/Thomas Peter

(New York) – The Chinese government has increased its groundless prosecutions with long prison sentences for Uyghurs and other Muslims in recent years in China’s Xinjiang region, Human Rights Watch said today. Since the Chinese government escalated its repressive “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism” in late 2016, the region’s formal criminal justice system has convicted and sentenced more than 250,000 people.

While few verdicts and other official documents are publicly available due to Xinjiang authorities’ tight control of information, a Human Rights Watch analysis of nearly 60 of these cases suggests that many people have been convicted and imprisoned without committing a genuine offense. These formal prosecutions are distinct from those arbitrarily detained in unlawful “political education” facilities.

“Although the Chinese government’s use of ‘political education’ camps has led to international outrage, the detention and imprisonment of Xinjiang’s Muslims by the formal justice system has attracted far less attention,” said Maya Wang, senior China researcher. “Despite the veneer of legality, many of those in Xinjiang’s prisons are ordinary people who were convicted for going about their lives and practicing their religion.”

Prosecutions Increase Sharply, Many for Long Sentences

The Chinese government’s official statistics showed a dramatic increase in the number of people sentenced in Xinjiang in 2017, followed by another increase in 2018, as reported by the nongovernmental organization, Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders, and the New York Times in 2019.

Click to expand Image

Source: China Law Yearbooks, Xinjiang Regional Yearbooks and Xinjiang Court Annual Work Reports

According to Chinese government statistics, Xinjiang courts sentenced 99,326 people in 2017 and 133,198 in 2018. The authorities have not released sentencing statistics for 2019.

The Xinjiang Victims Database – a nongovernmental organization that has documented the cases of over 8,000 detainees based on family accounts and official documents – estimates that the number of people sentenced in 2019 may be comparable to those in the previous two years. Of the 178 cases whose year of sentencing is known, the number of people sentenced in 2019 is roughly the average of those of 2017 and 2018.

Click to expand Image

Source: Xinjiang Victims Database

A comparable official sentencing figure could mean that tens of thousands more people were sentenced in Xinjiang in 2019.

Another change in 2017 was the dramatic increase in the number of those given lengthy sentences, also according to government statistics. Prior to 2017, sentences of over five years in prison were about 10.8 percent of the total number of people sentenced. In 2017, they make up 87 percent of the sentences.

Click to expand Image

Source: Xinjiang Regional Yearbooks

Similarly, the dataset from the Xinjiang Victims Database shows that among the 312 individuals whose prison terms are known, people are being imprisoned for, on average, 12.5 years during the Strike Hard Campaign. That figure excludes six people who have been given life sentences.

Arbitrary Imprisonments Under the Strike Hard Campaign

One case that vividly illustrates the arbitrary nature of Xinjiang’s mass imprisonment of Muslims is that of Jin Huaide, a Hui Muslim sentenced to life imprisonment for “splittism” in Changji Prefecture in September 2018. In a verdict obtained by Human Rights Watch, the Changji Intermediate People’s Court convicted Jin, 47, for “repeatedly and illegally” organizing trips abroad to study the Quran, inviting religious figures from countries including Bangladesh and Kyrgyzstan to Xinjiang, and holding religious meetings in the region between 2006 and 2014. The authorities accused Jin of encouraging others to take part in Tablighi Jamaat, a kind of transnational movement of Islamic proselytization.

There is no publicly available evidence that Jin’s activities constituted a recognizable criminal offense. Yet the court determined that his activities had “promoted the infiltration of foreign religious forces in China,” “strengthened the idea that Islam will unite the world, ultimately to establish a caliphate,” and thus “endangered the country.”

Jin was sentenced to seven years for “gathering crowds to disturb social order” in 2015 for these same behaviors, but the procuratorate challenged the verdict in 2017 and asked for a heavier sentence, resulting in a retrial that resulted in a life sentence. Prior to this sentence, in 2009, Jin had been imprisoned for 18 months for teaching the Quran to over two dozen Hui and Uyghur children.  

Aside from Jin Huaide’s case, the Xinjiang Victims Database found six others, some provided by families:

Nebijan Ghoja Ehmet, an ethnic Uyghur, was convicted of “inciting ethnic hatred and discrimination” for telling others “what is haram and halal” (prohibited and permissible in Islam) and sentenced to 10 years in prison;
Huang Shike, Hui, was convicted of “illegal use of the internet” for explaining the Quran to others in two WeChat groups and sentenced to two years in prison;
Asqar Azatbek, Kazakh, was convicted of “spying and fraud” for showing a visiting Kazakh official around hydraulic projects near the Kazakh-Chinese border and sentenced to 20 years in prison;
Nie Shigang, Hui, was originally convicted of “assisting in terrorist activities” and “money laundering” for helping over 100 Uyghurs transfer money to their relatives in Egypt – funds authorities said were used for terrorist activities – and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Upon appeal, however, the court ruled that Nie was not guilty of “assisting in terrorist activities” and reduced his sentence to five years for “money laundering;”
Nurlan Pioner, Kazakh, was convicted of “disturbing public order and extremism” for educating over 70 people in religion, and sentenced to 17 years in prison;
Serikzhan Adilhan, Kazakh, was convicted of running an “illegal business” for selling cigarettes worth 174,600 RMB (US$27,000) without a license and sentenced to 3 and a half years. The verdict of Serikzhan Adilhan is the only one of the seven available verdicts that is posted on China’s official database of court verdicts.

Other available information concerning 51 cases, including the indictments, incarceration notices, leaked official documents, and official communications with families indicate that most of the Uyghur and Kazakh individuals in these cases have been imprisoned for vague and overbroad offenses such as “inciting ethnic hatred,” “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” and for watching or listening to “extremist” content.

One such document, an indictment detaining the case of four Uyghur family members, illustrates the Chinese government’s perilously over-expansive use of the terms “terrorism” and “extremism.” The four were indicted in January 2019 for travelling to Turkey in 2013 and 2014 to visit another family member. Chinese authorities claimed that the man in Turkey, a university lecturer named Erkin Emet, belongs to a terrorist organization, and that the money (US$2,500) and gifts his family gave him – including a dutar, a traditional musical instrument, a gold ring, and basic necessities – were evidence of them “assisting terrorism.” These four, along with another sibling of Emet, were given sentences of 11 to 23 years, according to Emet, who in 2019 learned about their conviction.

These verdicts and the additional case information suggest that the courts in Xinjiang have convicted and imprisoned many people who had not committed a genuine offense.  

No Due Process Under Strike Hard Campaign

Xinjiang’s Strike Hard Campaign targets the “ideological virus” of Turkic Muslims, religious and political ideas that do not conform to those prescribed by the state, such as pan-Islamism. It involves mass surveillance and political indoctrination of the entire population. The authorities evaluate people’s thoughts, behavior, and relationships based on bogus and broad criteria – such as whether they have families abroad –  to determine their course of “correction.” Those whose transgressions the authorities consider light are held in political education camps or under other forms of movement restrictions, including house arrest. Past government practice suggests that more serious cases are processed in the formal criminal justice system.

The Strike Hard Campaign is typical of Chinese authorities’ periodic and politicized “anti-crime” initiatives. The authorities pressure the police, procuratorate, and courts to cooperate to deliver swift and harsh punishment, leading to summary trials, the processing of large number of cases in a short time, and a suspension of basic procedural rights under Chinese law.

Similar dynamics appear to characterize Xinjiang’s Strike Hard Campaign. News reports describe crushing work pressure on Xinjiang officials, including those in the criminal justice system. One describes police officers, procurators, and judges not having time to eat or sleep, and holidays being suspended. Human Rights Watch in 2018 interviewed people held in Xinjiang’s formal detention centers between 2016 and 2018 who said that they and fellow detainees were tortured to confess crimes and deprived of access to lawyers. Radio Free Asia has reported that people are being sentenced with perfunctory and closed trials that families cannot attend.

International pressure may have contributed to the Chinese government releasing some detainees from “political education” camps. The government, which has denied mass arbitrary detentions in Xinjiang, has asserted that it governs the region according to the “rule of law.” But many people have been forcibly disappeared, detained or imprisoned with their families not informed of their whereabouts. Those released are subjected to continued surveillance, control of their movements, and some to forced labor.

“International pressure on the Chinese government should be escalated for an independent investigation in Xinjiang,” Wang said. “That’s the best hope for the release of all those unjustly detained or imprisoned.”


UN Security Council: Impose Arms Embargo on Myanmar

Click to expand Image

A police officer stands in front of anti-coup protesters in Yangon, Myanmar, February 19, 2021.
© 2021 AP Photo

(New York) – The United Nations Security Council should urgently impose a global arms embargo on Myanmar in response to the military coup and to deter the junta from committing further abuses, 137 nongovernmental groups from 31 countries said today in an open letter to council members. Governments that permit arms transfers to Myanmar – including China, India, Israel, North Korea, the Philippines, Russia, and Ukraine – should immediately stop the supply of any weapons, munitions, and related equipment.

February 24, 2021

Joint Call for a Global Arms Embargo on Myanmar

An Open Letter to the UN Security Council and Individual UN Member States

Since the February 1, 2021 coup, the Myanmar military has detained civilian leaders, nullified the November 2020 election results, and installed a junta, the State Administration Council, under a manufactured “state of emergency.” In the ensuing weeks, Myanmar security forces have used excessive and at times lethal force against demonstrators; arbitrarily detained activists, students, and civil servants; and imposed rolling internet shutdowns that put lives at risk.

“Given the mass atrocities against the Rohingya, decades of war crimes, and the overthrow of the elected government, the least the UN Security Council can do is impose a global arms embargo on Myanmar,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “Supplying any equipment to the military enables further abuses and bolsters the junta’s ability to repress Myanmar’s people.”

The groups’ call reinforces UN Secretary-General António Guterres’s vow to “do everything we can to mobilize all the key actors and international community to put enough pressure on Myanmar to make sure that this coup fails.” The UN special rapporteur on Myanmar has called for a global arms embargo, while he and the deputy high commissioner for human rights have voiced support for targeted UN sanctions.

Security Council members should draft a resolution that bars the direct and indirect supply, sale, or transfer to the junta of all weapons, munitions, and other military-related equipment, including dual-use goods such as vehicles and communications and surveillance equipment, as well as barring the provision of training, intelligence, and other military assistance, the groups said. This should be accompanied by a robust monitoring and enforcement mechanism, including close scrutiny of sales to third parties that may be likely to resell such items to Myanmar.

Such sales violate international humanitarian and human rights law, which prohibit the transfer of weapons to a state where there is a clear risk of their being used to commit or facilitate serious violations.

The Security Council should also impose targeted sanctions, global travel bans, and asset freezes on the leadership of the junta and military-owned conglomerates.

Millions of people have taken part in anti-coup protests across the country, calling for the realization of their right to democratically elect their leaders. On February 16, protesters outside UN offices in Yangon called for increased international support. “We are happy the UN issues statements of condemnation, but we understand they are powerful and can do more,” Thurein, a 21-year-old student, told Frontier Myanmar.

The junta has deployed security forces, including the notoriously abusive Light Infantry Divisions, to crack down on demonstrators with teargas, water cannons, rubber bullets, and live ammunition, killing at least three people. Such violence perpetuates the security forces’ longstanding history of abuses against peaceful critics, as well as against the Rohingya and other ethnic minority groups. The commander-in-chief, Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, and several junta officials are directly implicated in crimes against humanity and war crimes in Rakhine, Kachin, Shan, and Chin States.

Until the Security Council acts, individual UN member states should adopt measures at the national and regional levels to block sales and other transfers of weapons and materiel to Myanmar, with the goal of extending an arms embargo to as close to a global scale as possible. Countries with existing arms embargoes on Myanmar, including the United States, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, and European Union member countries, should urge governments around the world to institute bilateral embargoes in the interest of building a broad coalition to oppose the flow of weapons to Myanmar. Governments should also strengthen monitoring and enforcement processes for existing embargoes, while ensuring the Myanmar military is barred from procuring dual-use goods and technologies.

For decades, the Security Council has failed to take adequate steps to respond to widespread violations of international human rights and humanitarian law in Myanmar. China and Russia have repeatedly vetoed or threatened to veto resolutions, blocking collective action. Despite this disunity, council members put out a collective statement in early February calling for the release of all those arbitrarily detained and the protection of the country’s democratic institutions. Members should build on that newfound consensus by urging China and Russia to support an arms embargo resolution that would ground a global effort to shield the people of Myanmar from a return to autocratic rule, the groups said.

“Cutting off the military’s access to arms, hardware, technology, and training would tell Myanmar’s junta and those who profit off it that there are real consequences for their crimes,” Roth said. “It would also signal to the millions of people marching in the streets, risking everything for democracy and freedom, that they are not alone in this struggle.”