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Militants should protect the right to freedom of expression

(BANGKOK, March 14, 2019)—The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) should immediately release any abducted Rohingya refugees, stop arbitrarily detaining and torturing people, and protect the rights of women and free speech, said Fortify Rights today. On March 12, ARSA published a video message urging its members and Rohingya refugees to refrain from “crimes, such as fighting, killing, etc.” in the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh.  

“When Rohingya militants abduct, torture, and threaten Rohingya civilians, they mirror the Myanmar Army,” said Matthew Smith, Chief Executive Officer of Fortify Rights. “Perpetrators of these crimes should be held accountable in fair and impartial trials.” 

In the video message, ARSA acknowledged crimes in the camps but disavowed responsibility for them, saying that those committing the crimes “are not only going against the Bangladesh government, but are also making ARSA responsible for their own crimes.”

In recent months, Rohingya militants believed to be associated with ARSA—previously known as al Yaqin—abducted and tortured at least five Rohingya refugees in refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar District, Bangladesh. Militants targeted Rohingya women aid workers and their family members as well as Rohingya religious leaders and other individuals who have expressed critical views of ARSA or are believed to be “informants” for Bangladesh or Myanmar authorities.

Names and other identifying details are withheld here for security reasons and to avoid potential reprisals against Rohingya eyewitnesses, survivors, and their families.

Two Rohingya women aid workers in Bangladesh told Fortify Rights that Rohingya militants abducted them or their family members because of the jobs that the women held with aid organizations in the refugee camps. A Rohingya woman aid worker told Fortify Rights in February how Rohingya militants abducted and tortured her and her husband in early 2019:

I was taken to a mountaintop away from my [neighborhood] block to a makeshift mosque. I was taken by an unknown man. On the way, I was crying . . . Once we got to the mosque, I saw my husband and many other men being tortured . . . They were being kicked and punched . . . One of the men told me, ‘You see how we torture the men? If you work [outside the home], we will do the same to you.’

She told Fortify Rights that she believed her captors were members of ARSA/al Yaqin. She said: “They are al Yaqin. In our block, there are many al Yaqin members. They beat the men and threaten the women. They reign inside the camp. They can do whatever they want.” 

Fearing further reprisals by members of ARSA, the woman recently resigned from her position in the humanitarian aid organization.

Screenshot of a video released by ARSA showing Attah Ullah, head of the group, 2017.
Screenshot of a video released by ARSA showing Attah Ullah, head of the group, 2017.

Another Rohingya woman originally from Myanmar’s Maungdaw Township told Fortify Rights how she also resigned from her job in a humanitarian aid organization after known members of ARSA abducted and threatened her relative because she worked outside of the home. She said:

[My relative] was taken at 10 p.m. at night. Around 15 unknown men took him from our shelter. He came back at 11:30 p.m. and told us how ARSA threatened him, saying they would beat him if he didn’t stop me from working. [My relative] said the men in the meeting said they were members of ARSA.

She continued: “Women and girls are not doing anything wrong. Our work is very important for our family and community. We refer pregnant women to medical professionals in the camp.”

“Rohingya women have a right to work without fear of reprisals,” said Matthew Smith. “Women are indispensable to the community in terms of aid and advocacy and their work and rights should be protected.”  

Fortify Rights documented two other abductions of Rohingya-refugee men from the camps in Bangladesh by suspected ARSA members since July 2018 and received several credible reports of militants abducting other civilians from refugee camps in Bangladesh.  

For instance, in mid-September 2018 at approximately 1 p.m., Rohingya militants abducted a Rohingya man, originally from Maungdaw Township, from the refugee camp in Bangladesh where he resides. 

“They accused me of being an informant for the Bangladeshi security forces and telling [the authorities] to arrest one of their leaders,” the man told Fortify Rights.  

He described how the militants detained and tortured him for six consecutive days:  

They beat me. I was bleeding from my mouth, and they hit me in my back very hard. My back is still in a lot of pain. I can’t even pray . . . They made me look at the floor and they kicked me many times. It was so painful. They never asked for money. They just beat me, saying I was an informant. 

He also told Fortify Rights how the militants threatened him with death: “They said, ‘We will slit your throat. We will kill you.’”  

The survivor believes the perpetrators were members of ARSA. He said they accused him of informing Bangladesh authorities about “their leader,” a known member of ARSA. 

Fortify Rights also documented the abduction of a Rohingya religious leader from his shelter in a refugee camp in Bangladesh in July 2018 after he co-authored a 21-page fatwa—a legal opinion or ruling on Islamic law issued by an Islamic authority—opposing armed opposition in Rakhine State in October 2017.

On July 27, 2018 at approximately 10:30 p.m., at least seven unknown Rohingya men entered the shelter of the religious leader in a camp in Cox’s Bazar District, forcing the man out of his home. He was praying at the time.  

“I saw him being taken away,” an eyewitness told Fortify Rights. “The men were wearing pants, unlike the neighbors who don’t wear pants at night but instead wear longyis [traditional clothing worn by men from Myanmar and Bangladesh]. I started feeling fearful . . . They were speaking the Rohingya language, not Bengali. Some of the men had masks on.” 

Last month, ARSA representatives called meetings in the refugee camps in Bangladesh with community and religious leaders, and during at least one meeting, ARSA representatives reportedly claimed that they killed the above-mentioned missing religious leader. A participant at the meeting told Fortify Rights:  

[The ARSA representatives] said in the meeting: ‘We are ARSA and you must support us. If you don’t support us, we will kill you like we killed [name of religious leader redacted for security]. We killed him because he was against us.’  

“We deserve justice for him,” said an eyewitness to the abduction of the religious leader. “We have the right to know where he is. Is he alive or dead?” 

Following Myanmar Army-led attacks on Rohingya civilians in Rakhine State that began in late August 2017, the religious leader and his family fled to Bangladesh. The leader subsequently led the drafting of a fatwa against armed resistance in Rakhine State. Fortify Rights received and reviewed a copy of the fatwa written in Urdu and Arabic. Dated October 30, 2017 and endorsed by 47 Islamic authorities internationally, the document declares that violence in Rakhine State against the Myanmar military under the “circumstances” at the time was not morally permissible under Islam. The fatwa urged self-preservation and called for peace, saying “Muslims of Arakan [Rakhine] should right now and in the future try to make peace because without peace it is not possible to guarantee their survival.”

The Dhaka Tribune also reported on the fatwa and spoke to Rohingya muftis who were signatories to the document. 

Rohingya refugees knowledgeable of the situation told Fortify Rights the fatwa upset members of ARSA as it was viewed as critical of ARSA’s actions in Myanmar.  

In early 2019, Fortify Rights and others reported details of the above two abductions to relevant officials at the United Nations, and in 2018 individuals with knowledge of the abducted religious leader reported details of the case to the Bangladesh authorities.

Additionally, Fortify Rights documented how members of ARSA threatened to kill anyone who might oppose or criticize the armed group. For example, during a meeting in a refugee camp in early 2019, Rohingya men who identified themselves as representatives of ARSA demanded payments and support from Rohingya civilian and religious leaders. A Rohingya-refugee leader who attended the meeting said: “[The ARSA representatives] explained to us that we must give monthly payments [to them] . . . They said, ‘You must support us. Some people must support us fighting and others must provide financial support.’ The ARSA leader said, ‘If you are against us, then we will kill you.’”

In June 2018 on a road outside Balukhali refugee camp, ARSA reportedly stabbed to death a Rohingya refugee named Arifullah, 35, who was a suspected critic of ARSA.  

Rohingya refugees told Fortify Rights that in Bangladesh ARSA is mostly operational in refugee camp areas that are inaccessible by road, where the members “do whatever they want.”

“We fled Myanmar because of attacks between ARSA and the military and because of military atrocities against our people, but now ARSA is active in abusing people in the camps and we have nowhere to flee for safety,” a Rohingya refugee man in Bangladesh told Fortify Rights in February 2019. “The situation could get much worse for Rohingya people in the camps.”  

Operating under their former name Harakh al Yaqin in 2016 and as ARSA in 2017, the group claimed responsibility for two coordinated attacks on Myanmar police posts in northern Rakhine State—on October 9, 2016 and August 25, 2017—sparking widespread Myanmar military-led attacks on Rohingya civilians that amounted to the crime of genocide. In a July 2018 report, Fortify Rights identified 22 Myanmar military and police officials who should be investigated and possibly prosecuted for genocide and crimes against humanity.  

For that report, Fortify Rights also interviewed six members of ARSA, eyewitnesses to ARSA killings of Rohingya civilians, and 11 civilians who provided credible information that ARSA killed six Rohingya civilians in Rakhine State whom ARSA believed to be government “informants” in the weeks and days leading up to August 25, 2017. Members of ARSA told Fortify Rights that Atta Ullah, the head of ARSA, issued direct orders to kill specific and targeted Rohingya civilians, and local ARSA members in Myanmar carried out those orders.

In September 2018, a United Nations Fact Finding Mission released a 444-page report calling for “the investigation and prosecution” of Myanmar’s Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing “and his top military leaders for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.” The report also documented how ethnic armed organizations in Rakhine, Kachin, and Shan states “have carried out extrajudicial killings, failed to take precautionary measures to protect civilians during attacks, destroyed property and forcibly recruited civilians, among other abuses.”  

Aside from ARSA, there are believed to be several small Rohingya militant groups in Bangladesh that have also sown fear among Rohingya refugees, said Fortify Rights. None of the militant groups appear to be well-trained or well-resourced and their ties to each other or outsiders are unknown.  

On February 3, ARSA released a publication via Twitter in the English language stating that the group will “abide by the International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and will continue to refrain from any activities going against the IHL.” The 69-page report condemned human trafficking, the illicit drug trade, the dowry system, and child abuse. 

Members and followers of ARSA and other militant groups in Bangladesh should heed the group’s recent video message and promote and protect the rights of all civilians and refrain from any unlawful behavior, including killings, abductions, torture, and threats against women, critics, or suspected “informants,” said Fortify Rights. ARSA should promote and protect freedom of thought and expression among Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and civilians in Myanmar. 

The Government of Bangladesh and the U.N. refugee agency should provide protection and support for Rohingya family members whose relatives were abducted, killed, or threatened by ARSA, said Fortify Rights today.

Abductions, murder, and torture are serious crimes and human rights abuses. Individuals or groups that commit such abuses should be held accountable. Bangladesh has an obligation to investigate such crimes, ensure perpetrators are held to account, and protect the rights of Rohingya refugees.

“Bangladeshi authorities should investigate crimes in the camps and work with the Rohingya community to prevent further crimes,” said Matthew Smith. “The authorities are well aware of their duty to protect refugees. The community needs to know that the Bangladesh authorities will protect them too.”

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