NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India's Supreme Court on Thursday rejected a plea to stop the government from deporting to Myanmar some 150 Rohingya Muslims police detained last month, paving the way for them to be sent to a country where hundreds have been killed following a military coup.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government has been trying to send back Rohingyas, a Muslim minority from Myanmar who have found refuge in India after fleeing persecution and waves of violence over the years.
Two refugees petitioned the Supreme Court for the release of Rohingya men and women detained in the northern Jammu region last month, and block the government from deporting them.
But Chief Justice Sharad Arvind Bobde said the deportations could go ahead as long as officials followed due process. "It is not possible to grant the interim relief prayed for," the judge said in his order.
"Regarding the contention raised on behalf of the petitioners about the present state of affairs in Myanmar, we have to state that we cannot comment upon something happening in another country," he added.
Hundreds of people have been killed in Myanmar since the army seized power in a coup on Feb. 1.
The ruling has triggered panic among refugees in India, a Rohingya community leader in New Delhi said, declining to be named out of fear of reprisals.
"This is a terrifying order made by the highest court in India," he said. "Given the horrifying situation in Myanmar, I had really hoped the judge would rule in our favour."
The Modi government says the Rohingya are in the country illegally and a security threat. At least a dozen Rohingya have been deported since 2017, according to community leaders.
Last week, officials tried deporting a 16-year-old Rohingya girl https://www.reuters.com/article/bangladesh-rohingya-india-myanmar/india-halts-deportation-of-16-year-old-rohingya-girl-to-myanmar-idUSL4N2LV12Z and drove her to the border, but that attempt failed as authorities in Myanmar were not reachable, officials said.
Many of the Rohingya in India carry identity cards issued by the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) recognising them as refugees, but the country is not a signatory to the U.N. Refugee Convention. India also rejects a U.N. position that deporting the Rohingya violates the principle of refoulement – forcible return of refugees to a country where they face danger.
Thursday's order shows a "blatant disregard" for that principle, said Fazal Abdali, a lawyer involved in Rohingya deportation cases.
"It sends a message that India is no longer a refuge for persecuted minorities," Abdali said.
(Reporting by Zeba Siddiqui in NEW DELHI; Additional reporting by Suchitra Mohanty in NEW DELHI; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Lisa Shumaker)