We, the undersigned organisations, are deeply concerned about the situation of stateless Rohingya refugee and human rights defender Zafar Ahmad Abdul Ghani, President of Myanmar Ethnic Rohingya Human Rights Organization (MERHROM), who has been vilified and has received death threats since April 2020 after he was falsely accused of demanding Malaysian citizenship and equal rights for the Rohingya in Malaysia during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A systematic smear campaign has been launched against human rights defender Zafar Ahmad, his family, and his organisation, including online petitions, open letters, and press releases issued without verification and containing false, misleading, biased, and malicious information. The smear campaign implicates not only him and his family but also the refugees, particularly the Rohingya. He has also received death threats and threats of physical violence through phone calls, SMS, WhatsApp messages and various social media platforms.
Zafar Ahmad and his wife lodged a report at the Gombak police station in April 2020 based on the threats and harassment he received online. Still, two years on, there has been a lack of action by the authorities to either effectively investigate the threats against him or provide him protection. Zafar and his wife filed 7 reports of threats and harassment with Malaysian police, but they were never informed of the outcome of any of them.
These threats have seriously impacted Zafar Ahmad’s health and well-being. Security concerns have prevented him from appearing in public for the past 2 years. It has also severely affected his family – the toll has been worsened by Zafar Ahmad’s lack of access to treatment and inability to maintain his livelihood.
On 3 December 2021, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor, sent a Joint Communication to the Malaysian government seeking a response within 60 days, which the government failed to do. As a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council, the delay in responding to the communication raises concerns about the government’s commitment to protect human rights defenders and uphold international human rights law and standards. The government finally responded on 28 March 2022, stating that the authorities have decided that no further action will be taken after an investigation, which is hugely disappointing.
We are also highly concerned that Zafar Ahmad has not received urgently-needed protection from the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Recognising Zafar is a registered refugee with the UNHCR and his situation as a human rights defender at risk, the UNHCR must protect Zafar when he faces threats to security and life following his peaceful and legitimate work as a human rights defender. Further, the delay in the resettlement process only puts Zafar’s life at risk and jeopardises his physical health, mental health, and well-being, including that of his family members.
The online attacks have been aimed against Zafar Ahmad but also against Rohingya refugees since the pandemic began, resulting in the escalating spread of xenophobia and hate speech and subsequent human rights abuses and harassment against the Rohingya refugees and migrants.
In light of the concerns raised above, we make the following recommendations:
– The Malaysian government must take immediate measures to protect Zafar Ahmad and his family, reactivate the investigation into the threats and harassment against him covered in the multiple police reports, ensure that the investigation is thorough and make public the results. Following this, perpetrators must also be brought to justice and held accountably;
– The UNHCR in Malaysia and headquarters in Geneva must prioritise Zafar’s protection and resettlement to a third country without delay. As a human rights defender, Zafar deserves more significant and timely international protection and resettlement to a third country so that he can resume his normal life with his family and continue his advocacy work safely;
– Countries willing to resettle refugees must prioritise Zafar’s case for immediate resettlement to protect him so that he can resume his work and advocacy to protect the rights of refugees and asylum seekers;
– Mainstream media should deliver accurate information, particularly involving the vulnerable refugee community in the country, to prevent hate speech, xenophobia and crimes against them;
– Social media platforms must take responsibility for smear campaigns, spreading false accusations, hate speech and xenophobia against Zafar, the Rohingya, refugees and migrants.
The following groups have endorsed this statement:
- CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation
- Amnesty International Malaysia
- Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (ABIM)
- Arakan Institute for Peace and Human Rights (AiPAH)
- Beyond Borders Malaysia
- Bridges Faith Initiative
- Building and Wood Workers International Asia Pacific
- Burma Action Ireland
- Burma Campaign UK
- Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK
- Campaign for a New Myanmar
- Canadian Burmese Rohingya Organization
- Center for Trade Union and Human Rights (CTUHR) Philippines
- Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ)
- Centro de estudios e Investigación sobre Mujeres CEIM
- Crane Center for Mass Atrocity Prevention
- Fortify Rights
- Free Burma Campaign (South Africa)
- Free Rohingya Coalition
- ILPS Commission 10
- Info Birmanie
- Initiatives for International Dialogue (IID)
- Institute for Asian Democracy
- Inter Pares
- International Campaign for the Rohingya
- International Indigenous Peoples Movement for Self Determination and Liberation (IPMSDL)
- Karen Human Rights Group
- Milk Tea Alliance Philippines
- Never Again Coalition
- No Business With Genocide
- Non Resident tharu society
- North-South Initiative
- Ohmsi Sdn Bhd
- Pacific Foundation for the Advancement of Women
- Parti MURBA
- Parti Sosialis Malaysia
- Penang Stop Human Trafficking Campaign.
- Persatuan Kesedaran
- Komuniti Selangor (EMPOWER)
- Persatuan Sahabat Wanita Selangor
- Queer Riot
- Reality of Aid – Asia Pacific
- Rohingya Action Ireland
- ROHINGYA CULTURAL CENTER
- Rohingya Human Rights Initiative
- Save Malaysia Stop Lynas
- Saya Anak Bangsa Malaysia (SABM)
- Sedane Labour Resource Centre (LIPS)
- Serikat Buruh Kerakyatan Kalimantan Barat
- SIGNIS MALAYSIA
- Social Justice and BD Youth Development
- Thadou Chin Community
- The Asia Foundation in Timor Leste
- The Sound of Hope
- U.S. Campaign for Burma
- Unitarian Universalist Service Committee
- Unyon ng mga Manggagawa sa Agrikultura (UMA)