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LETTER | Amnesty International Malaysia condemns the detention of eight Bajau Laut stateless, indigenous students, at least three of whom are children.

The students were arrested following a peaceful protest outside the Sabah chief minister’s office on June 14 and were released yesterday after being held for days in detention.

They were held unjustifiably in police lock-up for seven days. These students, including children, were victims of blatant discrimination due to their identities as stateless persons and members of an ethnic minority.

Though we are relieved they are now free, it is alarming they were arrested in the first place.

To recap, groups including students and NGOs held a peaceful demonstration, dubbed #KamiMahuAir (#WeWantWater) outside the chief minister’s office in Kota Kinabalu, calling for improved water access for students at the University of Malaysia Sabah (UMS).

Sixteen people were reportedly arrested after the demonstration but only the eight students and their teacher were held on remand.

The students who attend an alternative school for stateless students in Kota Kinabalu, Sandakan and Semporna as they are denied access to state education, were held under the Immigration Act 1959/63. Their teacher, a Malaysian citizen, was released after two days in detention.

Targeting stateless students for peacefully demonstrating is a direct attack on the right to freedom of expression and assembly and to detain them for immigration offences is a cruelly vindictive act.

Instead of suppressing peaceful protest, the Sabah government should facilitate public demonstrations and focus their attention on the issue the protesters were seeking to highlight which is a concern to all in Sabah - access to water.

Mistreatment of Bajau Laut community

The detention of the students followed the eviction of Bajau Laut people from their communities in Semporna, Sabah earlier this month. The Bajau Laut is a sea-faring community denied citizenship resulting in little access to basic services including education, water, healthcare and employment.

As a signatory of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, Malaysia’s treatment of stateless children violates its international legal obligations.

Malaysia must also fulfil its obligations to recognise and protect indigenous rights as part of its adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007.

The eviction of scores of Bajau Laut people from their homes and the waters on which their livelihoods depend is deeply alarming. This crackdown by the government on the Bajau Laut is indefensible and must end immediately.

For years, stateless persons in Malaysia including the Bajau Laut have been denied access to citizenship, and basic services and have been subject to immigration clampdowns by the authorities.

The systematic discrimination against stateless people and indigenous persons by the government violates the obligations of the state to protect the rights and dignity of all people.

Writer is the executive director of Amnesty International Malaysia.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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