Thursday, January 29, 2009

66 migrants convicted

RANONG (THAILAND - ST): A Thai court yesterday convicted 66 barefoot, dishevelled migrants detained at sea for illegally entering the country, raising the prospect that they could be sent back to Myanmar despite fears of persecution.

A Ranong provincial court judge sentenced each defendant to five days in prison after none of them was able to pay a 1,000-baht ($43) fine.

Four of them had to be ferried to court from hospital to face sentencing, one carried by two men because his legs were broken.

The Thai navy detained the Rohingya migrants on Monday after their rickety boat was found adrift in the Andaman Sea off Thailand's south-western coast. The Thai government contends that the migrants do not qualify for refugee status, and a police official said they could be expelled after serving their sentence.

'Have pity on us,' migrant Mamoud Hussain said before the ruling. 'They'll kill me and my family if I go back.'

Hussain, 50, was among 78 migrants on the boat. Twelve minors are being held separately because they are too young to be tried, said Ranong police Colonel Weerasilp Kwanseng.

The plight of the Rohingyas - a stateless, Muslim ethnic group who fled persecution in Myanmar - was highlighted earlier this month, following accusations that some of them had been abused by the Thai authorities.

Human rights groups say the Thai navy has twice intercepted boats filled with hundreds of Rohingyas and sent them back to the open seas, where hundreds later died.

The Thai authorities have repeatedly denied wrongdoing, insisting they only detain and repatriate people entering the country illegally. 'There is no reasonable grounds to believe these illegal migrants fled from their country of origin for well-founded fear of being persecuted,' the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Thailand faces an 'enormous burden' because there are three million illegal migrants currently in the country, it said.

But the Washington-based Refugees International has warned that any Rohingya repatriated to Myanmar 'is subject to arrest and abuse'.

Hussain said his group fled Myanmar about a month ago to escape poverty and persecution. He said sailors from the Myanmar navy who caught up with them as they sailed towards Thailand boarded their vessel and beat them with wooden and metal rods.

'They told us there are no Muslims in Burma, and they continued to beat us,' he said. The migrants were detained for 10 days and then allowed to go.

'They told us not to come back again, or they'll shoot us all.'

Tens of thousands of Rohingyas live in camps in Bangladesh, where many have been granted refugee status.

Many more brave the seas in search of a better life, often travelling to Thailand on their way to Malaysia.


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