India on Thursday deported seven Rohingya men to neighbouring Myanmar over six years after they entered the country illegally and jailed, shortly after the Supreme Court paved the way for the first such action against the community.
The move sparked criticism from rights groups with Amnesty International alleging that the Indian government is conducting a 'relentless smear' campaign against Rohingya immigrants and that it sets a 'dangerous' precedent for all asylum seekers in the country.
The men, who are in the age bracket of 26-32 years, were detained in 2012. They were later lodged in Cachar Central Jail in Silchar in Assam after a court convicted them under the Foreigners Act, holding them as illegal immigrants.
Indian and Myanmar security officials exchanged documents before the deportation of the men on the India-Myanmar border at Moreh in Manipur.
Rohingyas are a stateless Muslim minority who have faced persecution in Buddhist-majority Myanmar.
"Seven Myanmarese nationals have been deported today. They were handed over to the authorities of Myanmar at Moreh border post in Manipur," Assam Additional Director General of Police (Border) Bhaskar J Mahanta told PTI over phone.
Consular access had been given to Myanmar diplomats, who confirmed the identity of the immigrants, Mahanta said.
The confirmation of the Myanmarese citizenship of the illegal immigrants came after the government of the neighbouring country verified their addresses in Rakhine State and all of them were given travel documents by Myanmar, a Union Home Ministry official said. This is for the first time Rohingya immigrants were sent back to Myanmar from India, the official added.
The repatriation of the seven immigrants was arranged after 'reconfirming' their willingness to return and with 'full concurrence' of the Myanmarese government, the Ministry of External Affairs said.
Earlier in the day, the Supreme Court refused to step in to stop the deportation by dismissing a plea against the government's move.
The court said these Rohingyas were convicted by the competent court under the Foreigners Act and were held to be as illegal immigrants.
A bench of Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and K M Joseph said that even the country of their origin Myanmar has identified them and accepted them as its citizens.
"Having considered the prayer, we would not like to interfere with the decision taken. The petition is dismissed," the bench said.
The bench rejected the plea made by one of the Rohingyas, who had filed an application seeking to restrain the Centre from deporting to Myanmar the seven Rohingyas lodged in a detention centre at Silchar in Assam.
Those deported were Md Jamal, Mohbul Khan, Jamal Hussain, Md Yonus, Sabir Ahmed, Rahim Uddin and Md Salam -- all in the 26-32 year age bracket.
The top court took the case as first matter after advocate Prashant Bhushan, appearing for petitioner Jaffarullah, informed the court that it is an urgent issue as the seven Rohingyas were taken to the Indo-Myanmar border from where they will be deported.
During the hearing, Additional Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Centre said that these Rohingyas illegally migrated to India in 2012 and were convicted under the Foreigners Act.
He said that after the conviction they were sent to a detention centre and the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) had contacted the Myanmar embassy for identification of these seven Rohingyas.
"Following the verification, Myanmar government issued a certificate of identity to the seven Rohingyas along with one month visa to facilitate their deportation," he said, adding that after getting the travel documents they were taken to the border.
In a statement, Amnest International said the deported Rohingya men are at 'grave risk' of being subjected to human rights violations by the Myanmar government and it is a 'dark day' for human rights in India.
The rights body said that the deportees were 'forcibly' returned to Myanmar.
"This decision negates India's proud tradition of providing refuge to those fleeing serious human rights violations. It endangers the most persecuted population in the world and is bereft of any empathy," Aakar Patel, executive director of Amnesty India, said.
The Indian government had informed Parliament last year that over 14,000 Rohingya people, registered with the UN refugee agency UNHCR, stay in India.
However, aid agencies estimate there are about 40,000 Rohingya people in the country.