A Malaysian court on Tuesday allowed human rights groups to challenge the deportation of 1,200 Myanmar nationals to their strife-torn country, Amnesty International said, two weeks after Putrajaya deported a majority of them despite a court order that stayed their expulsion.
The Kuala Lumpur High Court also extended a stay on the deportation of the 114 Myanmar nationals who weren’t sent back last month until the completion of the hearings, the international rights watchdog group and Asylum Access Malaysia, a local refugee rights organization, said.
“Amnesty International Malaysia and Asylum Access Malaysia applaud the decision by the Kuala Lumpur High Court today to grant leave to proceed with the two organizations’ application for judicial review of the Malaysian government’s decision to deport 1,200 Myanmar nationals in February,” the two groups said in a joint statement.
“We welcome the decision to stay the deportation of the 114 Myanmar nationals, who are no longer at risk of deportation until the judicial review is completed.”
The High Court scheduled the next hearing for March 23.
Officials with the Immigration Department did not immediately respond to requests from BenarNews for comment.
On Feb. 23, the groups had petitioned the High Court together to stop the expulsion of 1,200 Myanmar nationals that the immigration chief had earlier announced.
There were at least three refugees registered with United Nations refugee agency among those being sent back, the rights groups said at the time.
Their deportation would endanger people and legitimize ongoing human rights violations by the Myanmar military that toppled Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s civilian leader, in a coup on Feb. 1, the groups said.
UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency, had said that at least six people registered with it were among those being deported. The agency had also said that Malaysia had denied it access to immigration detention centers since August 2019.
Malaysia’s immigration chief had issued assurances that no UNHCR cardholders or ethnic Rohingya were among the 1,200 people slated for deportation.
A day after the petition was filed, the High Court halted the deportation. But Malaysia ignored the court’s stay. On the same day, the government sent back 1,086 of the 1,200 Burmese aboard Myanmar navy ships.
Immigration officials said the Myanmar nationals who were deported went voluntarily.
At the time, Amnesty and the Malaysian Bar had said that the immigration department may be in contempt of court for the deportation. As of Tuesday, there was no word on whether contempt proceedings had been initiated against the department.
The United States and the European Union had expressed concern over Malaysia deporting the Myanmar nationals.
The military in Myanmar “has a long-documented history of human rights abuses against members of religious and ethnic minority groups,” Ned Price, the U.S. State Department spokesman, had said.
At least 54 people – mostly protesters – have been killed in clashes with the military and police in Myanmar since last month’s coup.
‘Role of NGOs and civil society organizations’
On Tuesday, the Kuala Lumpur High Court rejected the government lawyers’ argument that rights groups and NGOs could not challenge government decisions, the lawyer for Amnesty and Asylum Access Malaysia said in a statement.
Attorneys representing the government also did not immediately respond to inquiries from BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
“Today’s judgment also affirms the role of NGOs and civil society organizations in challenging government decisions in court on matters of public interest,” Katrina Jorene Maliamauv, executive director of Amnesty International Malaysia, said in the joint statement.
“No longer can the government dismiss judicial review applications by NGOs as trivial or misconceived, as the court has acknowledged the role NGOs play in today’s society in helping ensure accountability and transparency.”
As of the end of 2020, some 178,610 refugees and asylum-seekers were registered with UNHCR in Malaysia, and most had come from conflict-ridden areas in Myanmar or fled persecution there, according to the agency.
Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, but, according to UNHCR, the non-refoulement principle applies to the country as part of customary international law, which is binding on all states.
“Using indirect means to push people back to face grave human rights violations is essentially constructive refoulement,” Amnesty said last month.
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.