US Judge: Facebook Must Release Content Linked to Rohingya Genocide in Myanmar

John Bechtel
Washington
2021-09-23
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US Judge: Facebook Must Release Content Linked to Rohingya Genocide in Myanmar Unidentified men armed with knives and slingshots walk past the ruins of a burning house in Myanmar’s Rakhine state where thousands of Rohingya fled following a military crackdown, Sept. 7, 2017.
AFP

A U.S. magistrate has ordered Facebook to release records and deleted content which, he said, helped stoke attacks against Rohingya by Myanmar’s military including during a 2017 offensive that unleashed a massive exodus of refugees into Bangladesh.  

Zia M. Faruqui, a federal judge in Washington, ruled in favor of The Gambia, which is seeking “evidence of genocidal intent” for its lawsuit filed against Myanmar at the International Criminal of Justice.

In his ruling on Wednesday, Faruqui declared that the social media powerhouse, by its own admission, was too slow to respond to concerns about how the online platform played a role in Myanmar’s persecution of the stateless Rohingya Muslim minority.

“Facebook has admitted that Myanmar authorities used Facebook as part of a coordinated campaign of hate against the Rohingya. Yet the scope and underlying proof of this conclusion is unknown to The Gambia,” Faruqui wrote in his ruling.

“The investigation records will illuminate how Facebook connected the seemingly unrelated inauthentic accounts to Myanmar government officials. Specifically, these records may show which accounts or pages were operated by the same officials or from the same government locations.”

He noted that in 2018, Facebook began deleting accounts and other content used by Myanmar government agents.

“The Gambia seeks these records for ‘evidence of genocidal intent necessary to support a finding of responsibility for genocide’ of the Rohingya,” Faruqui ruled.

Finishing his 32-page order, Faruqui noted that Facebook took a first step by deleting content that, in his words, “fueled a genocide,” but then did not share the content.

“Facebook can act now,” he said, adding, “Failing to do so here would compound the tragedy that has befallen the Rohingya.

“Locking away the requested content would be throwing away the opportunity to understand how disinformation begat genocide of the Rohingya and would foreclose a reckoning at the ICJ.”

Paul Reichler, a Washington-based attorney representing the tiny West African nation of The Gambia in the ICJ lawsuit, praised the ruling.

“It enables us to obtain from Facebook the deleted messages,” he told BenarNews on Thursday, noting that the platform was used to deliver information to military units regarding attacks on the Rohingya.

“Facebook was one of the main weapons,” he said. “I am disappointed that Facebook was not willing to produce the messages voluntarily.”

Facebook did not immediately respond to a request from BenarNews for comment, but Agence France-Presse obtained a statement from the company. 

“We’re reviewing this decision. We remain appalled by the atrocities committed against the Rohingya people in Myanmar and support justice for international crimes,” a Facebook spokesperson said in the statement. 

“We’ve committed to disclose relevant information to authorities, and over the past year we’ve made voluntary, lawful disclosures to the IIMM and will continue to do so as the case against Myanmar proceeds,” it said, referring to the U.N. Human Rights Council’s Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar.

In January 2020, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered Myanmar to protect Rohingya from genocidal acts, in response to the lawsuit filed by The Gambia two months earlier.

The 17-judge panel based in The Hague unanimously supported the imposition of measures to force Myanmar to refrain from destroying evidence of alleged crimes that could be used in future hearings.

One month later, a senior International Criminal Court prosecutor told reporters in Dhaka that those responsible for committing genocide against Rohingya would be prosecuted.

Reichler said he did not know when the Facebook content would be turned over, noting the company has the right to appeal the magistrate judge’s ruling to a higher court.

“I don’t think that would be worth their time,” he said.

210923-BD-BU-genocide-inside.JPG
A vehicle carrying Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi drives past protesters after a hearing at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands, for a case filed by Gambia alleging genocide against the Rohingya population, Dec. 10, 2019. [Reuters]

The judge issued his ruling days after The Wall Street Journal released an investigative series, The Facebook Files.

The fourth part of the series included reporting that shed light on how the company did not do enough to stop “incitements to violence” while hate speech in Myanmar proliferated in 2018.

Facebook “executives described the Myanmar violence as a wake-up call to the company’s responsibilities in the developing world,” the report said.

In Dhaka, Munshi Faiz Ahmad, former chairman of the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies, said he believed Faruqui’s ruling would assist in efforts to prove allegations against Myanmar officials.

“We have seen a huge amount of anti-Rohingya posts and comments in Facebook when the Myanmar military and the vigilante groups in the country carried out genocide and crimes against humanity,” he told BenarNews.

“But whatever Facebook releases about the anti-Rohingya posts and contents would definitely corroborate the charges brought against Myanmar and the individuals involved in and responsible for the genocide and crimes against humanity at the international courts,” said Ahmad, a former ambassador to China.

$180 million for Rohingya

The ruling came on the same day that Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the American ambassador to the United Nations, announced that Washington was donating another $180 million to assist Rohingya refuges in Bangladesh, Myanmar and elsewhere.

The funding brings the total committed by the U.S. government since 2017 to $1.5 billion, of which, $1.2 billion has gone to support 900,000 Rohingya refugees in southeastern Bangladesh, the U.S. State Department said.

That includes the 740,000 Rohingya who crossed the border seeking shelter after Myanmar’s military launched its offensive in Rakhine state in August 2017. The funds also provide support to 472,000 Bangladeshis affected by the influx.

“We commend the people and Government of Bangladesh, who have responded generously to the refugees who have arrived in Bangladesh. However, more assistance is required,” said Ned Price, the department’s spokesman. “We urge other donors to come forward now with additional funds to sustain and increase support for the Rakhine state/Rohingya refugee crisis.”

In addition, the State Department reiterated its support for the citizens of Myanmar.

“In the aftermath of Burma’s Feb. 1 military coup d’état and brutal military crackdown, our commitment to the people of Burma, including Rohingya refugees and internally displaced persons, as well as members of other ethnic and religious minority groups, remains unwavering,” Price said referring to Myanmar by its former name.

The donation follows a U.S. pledge in May of $155 million toward the nearly $1 billion goal set by the UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency, for its 2021 Joint Response Effort to support Rohingya in Bangladesh.

It also came days after the Biden administration announced plans to allow 125,000 refugees to enter the country beginning in the Oct. 1 fiscal year, including 35,000 from the Near East and South Asia. A State Department spokesman said the United States would not discriminate based on country of origin.

Kamran Reza Chowdhury in Dhaka contributed to this report.

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