After Australian authorities intercepted a boatload of 41 Sri Lankans and handed them back to Sri Lanka on Sunday, a magistrate court in Galle — along the southern coast of the island — released 27 of them on bail on Tuesday.
Five of them were remanded until July 14, news agency Adaderana reported. Nine children — who were among those who reportedly went to Australia by boat seeking asylum — were acquitted.
The issue of Sri Lankan asylum seekers having been turned back by Australian authorities has drawn international attention, amid growing criticism against Sri Lanka on its rights record. Rights watchdogs have expressed concern over the safety of those who were sent back, and of those held mid-sea.
The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on Tuesday said it was deeply disturbed that Australian authorities on Sunday returned to Sri Lanka 41 people seeking asylum, “apparently without adequate screening of their protection claims and needs.”
Observing that international law required each and every case be properly and individually examined on its own merits, a statement said it was not something that can or should be done hurriedly, remotely and on the high seas, without procedural safeguards and due process guarantees for those involved.
“It is unclear whether the Australian Government has been given any assurances that the returnees will not face ill-treatment upon their return to Sri Lanka, nor is it clear how the Australian Government plans to monitor their treatment,” the High Commissioner’s spokesperson said.
Meanwhile, a High Court in Australia on Monday issued an interim injunction barring authorities from returning of 153 other Sri Lankan asylum seekers, reportedly including 37 children, intercepted by Australian authorities.
“The decision that the whole High Court will hear the challenge reflects the gravity of the Australian government’s deeply concerning proposal to return asylum seekers to a country where their lives may be at serious risk,” said Amnesty International Australia’s Refugee Spokesperson Graeme McGregor, in a statement issued on Tuesday.
Referring to the Australian government’s temporary commitment that they would not transfer the asylum seekers to Sri Lanka without giving 72 hours notice as a “small step in the right direction”, the statement said the asylum seekers remained indefinitely at sea, setting a dangerous precedent.
“We understand that since their interception more than a week ago, the individuals on this vessel have not been able to make contact with family members or refugee organisations. “
The OHCHR has said that it hopes the matter will be subject to a full judicial review in light of Australia’s obligations under international law, including the principle of non-refoulement under the 1951 Refugee Convention, the Convention against Torture, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.