Nov 13, 2009 (DVB), A United Nations body is to finally 'consider' granting refugee status to 34 Burmese men appearing in an Indian court on charges of gun smuggling, 11 years after they were arrested.
A lawyer for the group, comprising 10 members of the Karen National Union (KNU) and 24 from the National Union Party of Arakan (NUPA), criticized the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for its slow response to the case.
"The role of the international community, and especially the UNHCR, is a bit sad. If the UNHCR had stepped in it certainly would have helped," said the lawyer, Nandita Haksar.
Officials at India's intelligence agency had in 1998 promised the men a base on Landfall Island in the Indian Andaman Islands. When they arrived, however, six of the group were murdered and the survivors detained by the Indian military.
Haksar has accused Indian intelligence of adopting "dilatory tactics" in the trial, with the courts not issuing a charge sheet until six years after the men were first detained.
One lawyer for the defence has died in mysterious circumstances, while two of the defendants have disappeared and are believed to have died.
Furthermore, according to Haksar, one of the men murdered on Landfall Island "was a recognized refugee of the UNHCR so they had a responsibility that one of their refugees has been killed, and they did nothing."
The UNHCR had declined to help because they believed the 34 men were members of armed groups and therefore could be considered combatants, Haksar said.
She said that the UNHCR was displaying "sheer hypocrisy" given that the United States "have taken the entire KNU and given them asylum".
"The armed thing is nothing because in fact most of these kids were aged 16, 17 and 18 so they don't come under exclusion clauses," she said, adding that the UNHCR had granted refugee status to armed student groups in Burma.
When interviewed by DVB about the case, the UNHCR said: "It is our general policy not to comment on individual cases, as this is for the protection of the individuals we serve and part of our standard operating procedures."
The vice president of the KNU, David Thackrabaw, however welcomed the UNHCR consideration. "This is a very good development. They have been in jail for a long time, now they just need to fight their case," he said.
Harn Yawnghwe, executive director of the Brussels-based Euro-Burma Office, who testified as a witness in yesterday's court hearing said he was there to testify as to "why these people were in the Burmese revolution [and] to explain about the situation in Burma under the military regime".
He added that, if acquitted, India law would permit that they not be extradited to Burma, but instead a third country. The next hearing has been set for 15 December.
Reporting by Joseph Allchin and Khin Hnin Htet