Earlier this month, a lower court in the district of Cox’s Bazar sentenced a 28-year-old Rohingya refugee to death for the possession and smuggling of methamphetamine tablets, marking the first use of capital punishment under the 2018 Narcotics Control Act in Bangladesh.
Md. Arif Prakash Maulvi Arif, a resident of Kutapalong Camp 2 in the Ukhia sector of the southern district of Cox’s Bazar, had been arrested in September 2019 by the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and kept in custody until February this year, when he was granted bail by the High Court Division of Bangladesh’s Supreme Court. He fled while on bail, which the court interpreted as a sign of his guilt in the latest ruling. Arif was tried in absentia with a state-appointed lawyer to represent him.
In addition to the death sentence, the court fined Arif 100,000 Bangladeshi taka for his crimes and sentenced him to an additional year in jail for non-payment. The sentence will remain theoretical until and unless Arif is apprehended by the authorities.
Although the charges brought against him would not normally warrant capital punishment, the Cox’s Bazar Additional District and Sessions Judge Abdullah Al Mamun made an exception, having deemed his actions as an attack on Bangladesh’s security interests. In the pronounced verdict, Al Mamun states, “The defendant is a full grown, healthy, and normal person with discretion. He is fully aware of the provisions of Islam. Despite being sheltered in Bangladesh, the Rohingya Yabakarbari is trying to destroy the country by smuggling drugs.”
“Without capital punishment, the State would have to unnecessarily keep him in jail for 30 years out of public funds, and for the same reason, it will lose money in his life imprisonment. It is feared that the Rohingya Yabakarbari will engage in similar crimes again after serving his time,” the judge added. “On the contrary, his death sentence would result in the permanent removal of a notorious drug dealer from society and the state, while also setting an example for others.”
The ruling repeatedly addressed the accused as “the Rohingya Yabakarbari” (meaning a Rohingya yaba/methamphetamine businessman) during his trial in absentia. The bench assumed Arif’s role as a “yaba businessman, or undoubtedly a transporter or bearer,” without revealing or taking much into consideration the individual circumstances of his involvement.
The judgment was received well by civil servants and bureaucrats, including former general secretary of the Cox’s Bazar District Bar Association Advocate Zia Uddin Ahmed, who described it as an expression of patriotism and state policy. Meanwhile, the Cox’s Bazar Rohingya Prevention Committee took the opportunity to reiterate their demands for the immediate repatriation of Rohingya people, who supposedly endanger all of Bangladesh with their presence. The president of the Committee, Mahbubur Rahman, remarked that Rohingya people fall prey to criminal activities because they have nothing to lose, an opinion that is not uncommon in Bangladeshi public discourse.
The ruling comes at a time of renewed talk about repatriation, an operation that has remained at a standstill since Myanmar’s military staged a coup against the country’s civilian government in February 2021. The process is now set to be taken forward by a joint group led by the Bangladesh Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission (RRRC) under the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief and Myanmar’s Immigration and Population Ministry, with the initial verification of refugees conducted by the recently formed Ad-Hoc Task Force for Verification of the Displaced Persons from Rakhine in Myanmar.
The fifth meeting of the two parties was held on June 14, attended by Permanent Secretary U Chan Aye of the junta’s Foreign Ministry and Secretary Masud Bin Momen of the Bangladeshi Foreign Ministry. Later, the Foreign Ministry in Dhaka released a statement stating the readiness expressed by both sides to address the “reasons causing delay in the verification” and its demands for the “creation of [a] conducive environment in Rakhine and confidence building among them (Rohingyas).”
However, Bangladesh appears to have forgotten that its reminder to Myanmar “of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s humanitarian gesture in extending makeshift refuge to the huge number of displaced persons from Rakhine despite numerous constraints and challenges of Bangladesh” was being directed toward the same military leaders that tried to exterminate the Rohingya people in the first place.
Between 1992 and 2018, hundreds of thousands of people fled from Rakhine state in Myanmar in an attempt to escape a coordinated campaign of military violence and genocide. According to the UNHCR, more than 920,000 Rohingya refugees are now staying in Bangladesh, some 738,000 of whom have fled Rakhine since August 2017. The international attention that Bangladesh received as a result of the refugee crisis also invited praise for its government on account of their humanitarian efforts.
In recent years, however, Bangladesh’s treatment of refugees has raised concerns among human rights groups. Thousands of home-based and community-led schools within refugee camps were forced to close without notice after a decision issued by the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner in December 2021, denying access to education to more than 30,000 Rohingya children. Around the same time, intelligence and law enforcement agencies were assigned the task of tracking down and expelling Rohingya students enrolled in secondary public schools outside the camps.
As part of the state’s non-integration policy toward Rohingya people, the decision only gave formal approval to community-led schools teaching the Myanmar curriculum where the national anthem of Myanmar – the government responsible for the massacre of the Rohingya – was to be played “daily on each shift at every learning center.” Furthermore, it strictly prohibits teaching Rohingya children “how to draw the national flag of Bangladesh, how to write and speak in Bangla, and most importantly, the national culture of Bangladesh.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the refugee camps suffered an internet blackout following the directive of the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission, a move that Human Rights Watch described as “neither necessary nor proportionate” to precautionary measures. In the following months, the government also began relocating tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees to Bhasan Char, a remote island in the Bay of Bengal formed by sediment deposition and prone to extreme weather and natural calamities.
Bangladesh is not a signatory state to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol, which aims to ensure, among other things, access to courts, wage-earning employment, and the freedom of movement for refugees. Even though bound by the law, Rohingya people have no citizenship status in either Bangladesh or Myanmar itself, since the 1982 Burma Citizenship Act came into force; therefore, they lack any real political representation anywhere. In addition, they have also suffered violations of their individual human and civil rights in Bangladesh too. For example, during the anti-narcotics campaign launched by the Bangladesh government in 2018, Rohingya became victim to extrajudicial killings in alleged gun fights with police or the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), alongside hundreds of others.
Much of this has not been questioned in Bangladesh, as the majority opinion remained hostile, discriminatory, and lacking in compassion over the years. There is a highly legitimate case to be made that a poor and densely populated country of 165 million people with limited infrastructural capacity cannot be expected to take in more than a million refugees indefinitely. However, the government’s single-minded focus on a plan to repatriate the Rohingya to the country that attempted to wipe them out, now under the control of a brutal military regime notorious for its human rights violations, represents a shocking lack of humanity and a betrayal of the foundational principles of Bangladesh, a country born out of liberation from a genocidal colonial power.
The international community, which remains a spectator to the ongoing negotiations between Myanmar and Bangladeshi diplomats, intervening only in small doses for aid provision, bears a corresponding responsibility to share the burden of welcoming Rohingya refugees. This is especially the case for the countries of ASEAN, which have enabled majoritarianism and dictatorship in Myanmar for decades. As long as international attention remains singularly focused on other crises, the reality for the Rohingya people in Bangladesh is likely to remain dismal.