Malaysia: threats and harassment of defender of refugee & asylum seeker rights, Zafar Ahmad Abdul Ghani (joint communication)

Photo: Twitter

The following is based on a communication written by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders and other UN experts to the Government of Malaysia on 3 December 2021. The communication remained confidential for 60 days before being made public, during which time the Government was expected to respond. The Government did not respond during this period, and any reply, if sent, will be available on the UN communications database.

This is a shorter version of the original communication.

Read the full communication

BACKGROUND

Topic:  alleged threats and harassment of human rights defender Mr. Zafar Ahmad Abdul Ghani, in response to his defence of the human rights of refugees and asylum seekers, including the rights of the Rohingya minority.

Mr. Zafar Ahmad Abdul Ghani is a human rights defender and President of the Myanmar Ethnic Rohingya Human Rights Organization Malaysia (MERHROM), a non-profit organization based in Kuala Lumpur. As part of this work, Mr. Abdul Ghani advocates for the human rights of refugees and asylum seekers, combating human trafficking, and promotes the rights of the Rohingya minority, and the establishment of democracy in Myanmar. Mr. Abdul Ghani sought refuge in Malaysia in 1992 and was recognized as a refugee in 2004.

ALLEGATIONS

On 16 April 2020, the Malaysian Navy allegedly denied entry to a boat with 206 Rohingya people into Malaysia, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Following this, Mr. Abdul Ghani was contacted by local and international media for comments. On 21 April 2020, MERHROM issued a press statement in response to this incident, requesting the United Nations, ASEAN and world leaders to protect the rights of Rohingya minority and prosecute human traffickers in respective ASEAN countries. On the same day, the statement was posted on an unknown individual’s Facebook account, who allegedly urged the Malaysian Government to be stern with the Rohingya community and urged others to attack Mr. Abdul Ghani’s Facebook account. The account also reportedly stated that Mr. Abdul Ghani’s phone number was available.

On the same day, a picture of Mr. Abdul Ghani was uploaded on another unknown individual’s Facebook account, claiming that Mr. Abdul Ghani was demanding full citizenship rights for Rohingya living in Malaysia. Mr. Ghani’s social media account received almost 20,000 comments the same day, including threats and insults, including posts urging him and the Rohingya minority to leave Malaysia.

On the same day, an online petition was launched by unknown individuals, urging the Malaysian Government to send Mr. Abdul Ghani and all Rohingya minority back to Myanmar. On 22 April 2020, an open letter from Malaysian nationals was issued to MERHROM, demanding all Rohingya, including Mr. Abdul Ghani, be expelled back to Myanmar. 

Since then, Mr. Abdul Ghani has reportedly received further threats and harassment, including death threats and threats of physical violence through phone calls, WhatsApp messages, SMS, Facebook and various other social media platforms. These attacks call for the killing and violent attack of Mr. Abdul Ghani, as well as for the Malaysian government to expel him and all Rohingya minority from Malaysia. Mr. Abdul Ghani’s family have also reportedly received threats and insults, with threats that they will find him, his wife and children and kill them all, and made serious threats against his mother.

On 23 April 2020, Mr. Abdul Ghani and his wife lodged a report at the Gombak police station based on the threats and harassment they had been receiving online. They were reportedly instructed to meet the Investigation Officer at Setapak police station, where they were allegedly confronted by three unknown individuals regarding Mr. Abdul Ghani’s alleged claim for Malaysian citizenship.

Mr. Abdul Ghani’s and MERHROM’s advocacy and community work has reportedly been increasingly affected following the harassment and threats against him. As a result of this harassment, he together with MERHROM’s committee members have had to cease their efforts in assisting Rohingya who have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

On 5 September 2021, Mr. Abdul Ghani reportedly received a call from an unknown individual, believed to be a Myanmar national based on his accent, who told him to be careful, as the Myanmar Military Intelligence is allegedly following him. The caller told Mr. Abdul Ghani to stay at home and not leave.

Additionally, following the death of human rights defender and Chair of the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights (ARSPH) Mr. Mohib Ullah on 29 September 2021, in the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, Mr. Abdul Ghani has been receiving threats on social media platforms, urging him and Rohingya refugees in Malaysia to return to Myanmar. Although Mr. Abdul Ghani’s name is not always referenced, he is referred to on social media as the “President or Rohingya Leader in Malaysia”.

On 30 September 2021, the Sinar Harian Malaysian newspaper published an article on Mr. Ullah’s assassination. The article received over 1.3k comments, reportedly mostly negative and many targeting Mr. Abdul Ghani. Allegedly, some comments included threats of violence, including that Mr. Abdul Ghani should be shot, or that he should take Mr. Ullah’s place in the refugee camp where he was assassinated.

CONCERNS

In the communication, we expressed our deep concern at the death threats, harassment and intimidation against human rights defender Mr. Abdul Ghani, which appear to be directly linked to his legitimate work as a human rights defender in Malaysia, working on the protection of the rights of refugees and asylum seekers, combating human trafficking, the rights of the Rohingya minority, and promoting the establishment of democracy in Myanmar. Furthermore, we express our concerns regarding the targeting of Mr. Abdul Ghani for the legitimate exercise of his right to freedom of opinion and expression, as well as of peaceful assembly and of association. We express further serious concerns at the threats and intimidation against Mr. Abdul Ghani’s family members as well.

We also expressed concern with regard to the online targeting of, smear campaigns and xenophobia against refugees and migrants. We are concerned that such actions heighten the vulnerability of refugees, migrants and certain minorities, given the precarity of their status, and could result in the normalisation of xenophobia and discrimination against refugees and migrants in Malaysia. As such, this could also potentially inhibit human rights defenders in Malaysia from carrying out their legitimate work regarding minority, refugee and migrant rights, due to potential retaliation.

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