KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - A Malaysian court on Wednesday will hear a bid to set aside caning sentences handed down to 27 Rohingya Muslim refugees from Myanmar, lawyers said, a punishment that rights groups have decried as vicious and tantamount to torture.
Muslim-majority Malaysia has long been a favoured destination for Rohingya seeking a better life after escaping a 2017 military crackdown in Myanmar and, more recently, refugee camps in Bangladesh.
But Malaysia, which does not recognise refugee status, has recently turned away boats and detained hundreds of Rohingya, saying it can not take in more migrants because of a struggling economy as a result of the novel coronavirus.
In June, a court on Malaysia’s Langkawi island sentenced 40 Rohingya refugees to seven months’ jail for arriving in the country by boat without a valid permit, Collin Andrew, a lawyer representing the refugees, told Reuters on Tuesday.
Twenty-seven men among them were also sentenced to caning, a penalty that Andrew was seeking to overturn in court on Wednesday.
The immigration department and the attorney-general’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Under Malaysia’s Immigration Act, anyone who illegally enters the country can face a 10,000 ringgit ($2,345) fine, jail for up to five years as well as six strokes of a cane.
Courts can choose not to hand down the caning sentence on humanitarian grounds if the migrant charged is a refugee and does not have any prior criminal history, Andrew said.
“So it’s quite unusual for the court to impose caning against Rohingya in this case,” he said.
The rights group Amnesty International this week urged Malaysia not to cane the refugees, saying it was “cruel and inhumane”.
Lawyers have also sought a review of a case against six Rohingya teenagers, including two girls, who Andrew said had been wrongly tried and convicted as adults.
This month, the court had dismissed a case against 51 Rohingya minors who were also charged for violating immigration laws, he said.
Reporting by Rozanna Latiff; Editing by Robert Birsel