Human Rights Watch today condemned the actions of three embassies in Kuala Lumpur -- the French, the Swiss, and the Bruneian -- for turning twenty-seven Acehnese asylum-seekers over to the Malaysian police for immediate deportation to Indonesia. At the same time, it urged the Malaysian government to halt plans for deportation and allow the men immediate access to officials of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) so that they can be interviewed in confidence to determine whether they have a valid claim to asylum. Eight Acehnese remain at the U.S. embassy compound.
All are asylum-seekers from the special region of Aceh, on the northern tip of Sumatra in Indonesia, where an armed separatist movement called Aceh Merdeka (Free Aceh) has been sporadically active since 1976. The men escaped on March 26 from an immigration detention camp not far from Kuala Lumpur.
"If these men get sent back to Indonesia, where there is a well-established pattern of arbitrarily detaining and ill-treating persons suspected of supporting Aceh Merdeka, they are likely to face serious human rights violations," said Sidney Jones, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. "If they are deported before being interviewed by UNHCR, the Malaysian government could be responsible for violating the principle of non-refoulement _ not sending refugees back to a country where they may face persecution _ and the French, Swiss, and Bruneian governments would be complicit."
On March 26, more than 500 Acehnese were deported from Malaysia despite violent protests by the deportees, resulting in the deaths of eight detainees and one policeman in one immigration detention center alone. The April 2, 1998 edition of Waspada, a Medan (North Sumatra) newspaper, quoted the governor of Aceh as saying the 545 Acehnese deportees were undergoing a two-week "guidance" program before they were sent back to their homes. He said the "guidance" was necessary because these people had been living abroad so long they needed to understand how much progress Indonesia had made. All were deported to a military camp that used to be run by Kopassus, the army special forces, in Rancong, outside Lhokseumawe.
Hundreds of Acehnese are believed to be detained without charge or trial in military camps in Aceh, but no outside agency has been allowed regular access to these camps. In March 1997, the Indonesian government suspended visits to prisons in Aceh by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Human Rights Watch is particularly concerned that the actions of the Swiss and French governments, both parties to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, amount to a violation of their obligations under this treaty.