YANGON, Myanmar — Myanmar’s Supreme Court on Sunday reduced the sentence of a group of Rohingya men convicted of crossing the border from Bangladesh, and their leaders now face up to two years in prison instead of up to 15 years.
Amnesty International applauded the ruling and called for the seven to be immediately and unconditionally released.
“Everywhere you look in Myanmar, you see atrocities committed against the Rohingya, but for now even the most serious perpetrators appear to be getting preferential treatment over the more vulnerable civilians,” Amnesty International Asia-Pacific Deputy Director Philip Luther said in a statement.
They had been convicted in September of crossing the border in search of their families in southern Bangladesh.
But the prosecution in Sunday’s ruling reduced their sentences to three years each from a maximum of 15 years, the defense lawyer, Than Tun Thein, said. A Supreme Court ruling was also published Sunday, saying they would serve three years in prison, not five.
“It’s bad for the families because the families must leave the country before the 90 days, and then the husbands may do hard labor,” said Than Tun Thein, who is also a government lawyer.
The seven were found guilty of violating the Immigration Act and the Special Immigration Order. They are from Rakhine state, home to the vast majority of Myanmar’s roughly 700,000 Rohingya, who the Myanmar government says are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Most Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh say they were persecuted at home for decades.
The group’s leader, Aung Zaw Htay, was arrested two days after the Sept. 17 incident. Eleven of the men were later released and found guilty on lesser charges. The charge of attempting to cross a border illegally carries a maximum five-year sentence, but the government often handles only the more serious cases.
The accused men denied the charges at the time of their trial, saying they were driving through Bangladesh with a party of friends seeking shelter from floods.
Myanmar’s crackdown on the Rohingya began Aug. 25, when Rohingya militants attacked police posts, and has since sent at least 680,000 Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other groups have called the operation a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi has strongly condemned the persecution, but human rights groups say her political and legal decisions have paved the way for the violence against the Rohingya. For decades, the United Nations has warned Myanmar against what it considers ethnic cleansing in Rakhine state.
The Rohingya were stripped of citizenship under a 1982 citizenship law, a ruling that many regard as discriminatory and a key reason why the Rohingya are stateless and denied work or most public services.
The Rohingya, most of whom are Muslim, are classified as an “illegal immigrant” by Myanmar, and a law passed in 2017 targeted those with valid Bangladeshi passports and said they would be stripped of citizenship.
The central government at the time denied the law was aimed at stripping the Rohingya of citizenship, and the law was ruled constitutional.
Instead, the arrests of the Rohingya men for crossing the border were described as acts of border security.
The prosecution also argued that the seven men were in danger because one of the members of the Myanmar security forces, Wutip Hlaing, was also among the eight accused in the case.
Hlaing reportedly married a police captain last year, prompting protests from activists who believe he was being put on trial to make it look like Rohingya were also committing crimes against the country.
Amnesty International said Wutip Hlaing had written letters accusing the seven men of being “terrorists” plotting to spread “militant activities” in the area.
It said the prisoner transfer order that brought the group to court did not allow for the Rohingya detainees to know why they were detained, and that they had no contact with their lawyers before the trial.
“The treatment of the seven Rohingya men is abhorrent,” Luther said in the statement. “All they did was simply want to get across the border to see their loved ones. They should never have been arrested in the first place.”