A court under the jurisdiction of Myanmar’s military junta has sentenced 116 Rohingya refugees to between two and five years in prison for traveling without documents after they left camps in Bangladesh and Rakhine state to try to get to Malaysia, sources in Myanmar told Radio Free Asia.
The 57 men, 47 women and 12 children were arrested Dec. 20 from two motorboats near an island off Bogale township in the Ayeyarwady near Myanmar’s southern coast. According to a previous RFA report, at the time of their arrest they were waiting for other boats to take them to shore in Bogale, and they planned to set sail from there to Malaysia.
“The court has given out the prison sentences in two batches,” a lawyer who has been helping the detainees told RFA’s Burmese Service on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
Those who left the refugee camps in Bangladesh got five years while those who left from Rakhine state received two years. He was not sure how many of the detainees came from Bangladesh.
Residents in Bogale told RFA that the authorities plan to send the 12 children to Hnget Aw San Youth Rehabilitation Center and Twante Youth Correctional Center in the Yangon Region while all the adult Rohingya are to be sent to Ayeyarwady’s Pyapon prison.
Some of the detainees are ill and need medical treatment, a volunteer who is helping them told RFA on condition of anonymity to speak freely.
“Some have fevers. Some are infected with skin diseases. They are also in need of clothes,” the volunteer said.
According to the volunteer, another 100 Rohingya who were arrested in the region’s Pyapon, Kyaitlatt and Daedaye Townships are still awaiting trials.
Once they serve their terms, authorities will return them to their place of origin, volunteers said.
A total of 237 Rohingya, 129 males and 108 females, serving prison terms in Insein Prison in Yangon Region were released under the military council’s amnesty on January 4, 2023.
A volunteer who is helping Rohingya in the Rakhine state city of Sittwe said family members of convicted Rohingya have difficulties visiting them in prison because they don’t have any documents to prove their citizenship and there are restrictions on their movement.
“When the Rohingya who fled Rakhine State get sent to prison, their family members totally lose contact with them,” the Sittwe volunteer said.
“Although they are in Rakhine State, they are technically not citizens yet. So they cannot travel in the country,” he said, adding that a select few are wealthy enough to bribe the right officials to visit their family members. “But 99 out of 100 detained Rohingya are very poor and cannot afford that.”
RFA records show that between December 2021 and Jan. 6, 2023, a total of 1,816 Rohingya who fled refugee camps in Rakhine State and Bangladesh have been arrested in Myanmar and 387 of them got prison sentences of two to five years.
Advocates for the refugees say that they should be returned to their places of origin instead of being charged as criminals.
More than 740,000 Rohingya fled Rakhine state following a military crackdown on the ethnic minority Muslim group that started five years ago and live in refugee camps in Bangladesh. Of the more than 600,000 that remained around 125,000 are living in camps in Rakhine.
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