India has deported its first group of Rohingya Muslims, raising fears of further repatriations.
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Rights groups and activists have slammed the Indian government for deporting seven Rohingya men to Myanmar, a controversial decison that was also backed by the country's top court.
On Thursday, India's Supreme Court allowed the first deportations of Rohingya after it rejected a last-minute plea by defence attorney Prashant Bhushan to allow them to remain in the country as they feared reprisals in Myanmar.
"Even the country of their origin has accepted them as its citizens," the court said, adding that it would not interfere with the government's decision.
"The order of the top court is appalling, both in law and for lacking humanitarian empathy," Ravi Nair, who works at South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre in capital New Delhi, told Al Jazeera.
The seven men, arrested in 2012 for entering India illegally, were bussed to the border town of Moreh in Manipur state, where they were handed over to Myanmar border guards on Thursday.
Who are the Rohingya?
Nair said this first instance of the repatriation of Rohingya Muslims may trigger "a spate of further deportations".
"Generally, there's apathy for refugees. Whether it were Iranian refugees fleeing the Shah of Iran, or Sudanese and Somali refugees, or Afghan refugees fleeing Soviet invasion and the Taliban. Similarly, the Indian public could not be bothered about the fate of these Rohingyas who fled deadly violence," he said.
Amnesty India also criticised the government's decision and accused it had been conducting "a relentless smear campaign" against the Rohingya community in India for over two years.
"This decision sets a dangerous precedent for all asylum seekers and refugees in India," said Aakar Patel, an official of the group, asking the government to work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees so as not to renege on human rights commitments.
'International legal obligation'
A UN human rights official said the forcible return of the Rohingya violates international law.
"The Indian Government has an international legal obligation to fully acknowledge the institutionalised discrimination, persecution, hate and gross human rights violations these people have faced in their country of origin and provide them the necessary protection," UN special rapporteur on racism, Tendayi Achiume, said in a statement.
"I am also appalled over the length of their detention," the expert added.
Defence attorney Bhushan said the government should treat the Rohingya as refugees and not as illegal migrants and have a representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees visit and talk to them so that they were not deported under duress.
An estimated 40,000 Rohingya, a mostly Muslim minority, live in India after having fled persecution in Buddhist-majority Myanmar over the years.
The Indian Government has an international legal obligation to fully acknowledge the institutionalised discrimination, persecution, hate and gross human rights violations these people have faced in their country of origin and provide them the necessary protection
TENDAYI ACHIUME, UN SPECIAL RAPPORTEUR ON RACISM
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist government has described undocumented Rohingya immigrants as posing a national security threat and asked state governments last year to identify and deport them.
More than 700,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh after an army crackdown in Myanmar a year ago.
UN officials have described the Myanmar military's action as ethnic cleansing. In a report published in August, the UN called for Myanmar officials to face genocide charges over their campaign against the Muslim minority.
Myanmar has denied the charge, saying its military had launched counterinsurgency operations after attacks on security forces by Rohingya militants in August last year.
Myanmar stripped the Rohingya of their citizenship in 1982, rendering the minority community stateless.
Zeenat Saberin contributed to this report from New Delhi
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