Ministry wrong to justify arrest of Syrian refugee, say rights lawyers

Hassan al-Kontar has been detained by the Immigration pending his deportation to Syria. (Facebook pic)

PETALING JAYA: A human rights group says Deputy Home Minister Mohd Azis Jamman was wrong in justifying the arrest of a Syrian man stranded at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA).

Lawyers for Liberty executive director Latheefa Koya said the deputy minister should realise that there was a vast difference between an asylum seeker and a migrant who willfully enters the country illegally.

“Asylum seekers like Hassan al-Kontar cannot be treated like illegal migrants and be locked up,” she said in a statement.

Latheefa said Malaysia would be in breach of its international obligation to uphold the principle of non-refoulement – the non-return of an asylum seeker to his country of origin for fear of persecution and risk to his life.

“Instead of having him arrested, the deputy home minister should ensure the immediate release of Kontar and process his asylum request by referring him to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and grant him temporary settlement pending his final resettlement. What is so difficult about that?

“Someone who is a refugee or is seeking asylum – does not lose all rights and liberty and the power to choose his country of asylum,” she said.

Kontar was arrested by the authorities after being stranded at KLIA for seven months since March 7, when he was barred from boarding a flight to Ecuador.

He is said to be wanted by Syrian authorities for refusing to join mandatory military service as he didn’t want to be part of the civil war raging in the country. The former salesman previously worked in the UAE but was deported to Malaysia as his visa was not renewed.

Immigration director-general Mustafar Ali said police had decided to arrest Kontar as his social media posts had embarrassed Malaysia and because he was in a restricted area without a boarding pass.

In justifying the arrest, Azis claimed yesterday that Kontar had to be detained and investigated by police and that he had rejected offers of asylum from some other countries.

Latheefa said the home ministry has full powers to authorise the Immigration director-general to grant temporary shelter and asylum to Kontar pending a successful application to Canada.

She said Kontar had expressed his wish to go to Canada as he had relatives there, and Canada is a country that welcomed Syrian refugees.

“So the suggestion that Kontar is ‘choosy’ or ‘picky’ about his country for resettlement is uncalled for and not a reason to detain him further.

“Why detain and investigate him like a common criminal? This is the kind of thing the Barisan Nasional regime used to do, as they had little regard for international obligations or refugee rights.”

Latheefa said Kontar should be immediately released from custody and granted temporary settlement in Malaysia pending process of his asylum request to Canada.

Malaysia has hosted and received many asylum seekers and refugees from war-torn countries in the 1970s until today, including the Vietnamese, the Bosnians, the Acehnese, and the Rohingyas.