Sittwe, Rakhine State — Courts in northern Rakhine have jailed 23 Rohingya under the Immigration Act for illegal entry after returning to Rakhine State from Bangladesh after Myanmar closed the border due to COVID-19.
The Maungdaw District General Administration Department on July 2 opened cases against 44 Rohingya for illegally crossing the border or assisting the border crossings in May. And the verdicts were given within days.
The courts in Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships handed down sentences to 19 illegal returnees and four others who assisted them, according to deputy director U Htein Lin of Maungdaw District Immigration Office.
“The department sent us the list of illegal returnees and instructed us to file lawsuits against them. The court sentenced them to six months in prison,” U Htein Lin told The Irrawaddy.
There are more than 70 people on the list to be sued for illegal entry with some still held at quarantine centers.
Some of the returnees were under 18 and granted bail while others were handed to their parents, he said.
Some of the illegal returnees tested positive for coronavirus and are receiving treatment. Three have recovered and are in quarantine, U Htein Lin said.
The returnees were given the minimum sentence with the law carrying a maximum prison term of seven years.
Maungdaw residents have expressed health concerns after Rohingya returnees were found infected with coronavirus. In response, the district COVID-19 prevention and control committee has instructed the border police to tighten border security, Maungdaw District administrator U Soe Aung told The Irrawaddy.
He claimed no one had recently crossed the border illegally into Maungdaw. But Lower House lawmaker for Buthidaung Township U Aung Thaung Shwe disagreed.
The authorities knew about the cases because of reports from residents rather than because they were spotted by security personnel, he said.
“They can cross the border as they wish. We have told the government many times that it can accept them. But if it is to do so, it should let them travel across the country and not be confined to Rakhine State,” said U Aung Thaung Shwe.
The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) launched a series of attacks on security outposts in northern Rakhine on Aug. 25, 2017, prompting Myanmar’s military to carry out clearance operations that drove more than 730,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh.
Myanmar agreed with Bangladesh to open two repatriation reception centers in early 2018 for official returnees. Taungpyo Letwei is for those arriving by land and the other is in Nga Khura for those returning by boat.
No one has officially returned under the government’s program established under the bilateral agreement. More than 600 Rohingya have so far voluntarily returned independently, according to the Maungdaw administration department.
Those who return independently must report to the authorities and verify whether they previously lived in Myanmar and were part of the 2017 exodus. There will also be a check whether they have ties to ARSA, which the government has labeled a terrorist organization.
However, since the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in Myanmar in March, the government closed the Maungdaw border and suspended repatriations.
Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko