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 following groups have endorsed this statement: