Malaysia under fire for plan to cane Rohingya asylum seekers

KUALA LUMPUR (UCAN): Malaysia has drawn condemnation from rights advocates for the planned caning of numerous Rohingya asylum seekers.

A group of 31 stateless Rohingya men, who were among hundreds of asylum seekers who arrived by boat in Malaysia in April, were sentenced in July by a court to seven months in prison under Malaysia’s Immigration Act.

At least 20 have also been sentenced to three strokes of the cane, a punishment prescribed by the Immigration Act, in addition to a maximum of five years in prison and a fine. The caning has yet to be carried out.

Nine Rohingya women and 14 children were also charged with illegally entering the country and face the prospect of months in prison. 

In a newly released statement, Amnesty International called on Malaysian authorities to abandon the plan to cane the detained asylum seekers.

“The plan to viciously beat Rohingya refugees is not only cruel and inhuman but is also unlawful under international standards. To inflict such a violent punishment as judicial caning amounts to torture,” said Rachel Chhoa-Howard, a Malaysia-based researcher at Amnesty International. 

“The men who face violent lashings on top of jail terms have already fled persecution and crimes against humanity in Myanmar. They also survived a dangerous journey at sea to Malaysia in search of safety. The inhumanity of this approach is atrocious.”  

The rights group said, “The Malaysian authorities must immediately abandon plans to whip at least 20 Rohingya men who are being punished simply for trying to seek safety,” adding, “The government should release all other jailed Rohingya refugees—including women and children—who have been unlawfully singled out, convicted and imprisoned for alleged immigration offenses, which are contrary to international law.” 

Judicial caning is a form of corporal punishment still commonly employed for various crimes across the country. It is usually imposed on convicted felons on top of other punishments such as jail terms and fines.

In addition to civil courts, Islamic Sharia courts also impose the penalty on Muslim men and women found to have committed certain offenses. Observers say caning serves not only to inflict pain its recipients but also to humiliate them.

According to rights advocates, thousands of people are subjected to various forms of caning each year in Malaysia, including schoolchildren. Foreigners such as the Rohingya asylum seekers are also sentenced to be caned.

Rights advocates say the caning is meant to send a warning to other asylum seekers to avoid coming to Malaysia.

Malaysia is a popular destination for stateless Rohingya Muslims who have been forced to flee their homes in Rakhine state in Myanmartpo escape what observers have described as ethnic cleansing.

In recent months, Malaysian authorities have hardened their stance on Rohingya asylum seekers and turned back numerous boats seeking to land in the country.

Police also rounded up hundreds of Rohingya men, women and children during immigration crackdowns ostensibly to mitigate the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) in migrant communities.

Advocats say the heavy-handed treatment is in violation of international laws and norms. 

“(Malaysia’s) government should protect the rights of all refugees seeking safety—it is every state’s obligation under international law,” Chhoa-Howard said. 

“If they do not, the international community, including the UN, must take the government to task for their treatment of Rohingya,” she said.

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