Nearly 100 Rohingya appeared in a Myanmar court Wednesday after being arrested for trying to flee persecution, their lawyer said, as leader Aung San Suu Kyi addressed the UN's top court to deny allegations of a genocidal campaign against the ethnic minority.
One-by-one, the weary detainees stepped down from a police van at the courthouse in the western Myanmar city of Pathein.
Their crime was to leave their home townships without permission from authorities.
Rohingya in Rakhine state live under tight restrictions with little access to healthcare, education or livelihoods in conditions Amnesty International brands as "apartheid".
For years Rohingya have taken to boats, trains and buses in attempts to get out, risking everything in the process.
The 95 people, including 25 children, each paid several hundred dollars for a chance at a better life, lawyer Thazin Myat Myat Win told AFP.
"Some even sold their labour in advance" to pay the broker fees, she added.
Instead they likely face two years in prison for violating the immigration act.
- 'Apartheid' conditions -
They were arrested November 29 after travelling by boat from Rakhine to a southern beach where buses were waiting to take them to the commercial capital Yangon.
Their court appearance came as former rights icon Suu Kyi denied "genocidal intent" in her defence of Myanmar's military operation against the Rohingya at the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
On Tuesday the Nobel Peace Prize laureate sat through gruesome testimony of the violence suffered by Rohingya in the bloody military crackdown in 2017 that forced some 740,000 to flee to Bangladesh.
The Gambia, on behalf of dozens of Muslim countries, accuses Buddhist-majority Myanmar of genocide.
The west African state is calling for provisional measures to halt the ongoing persecution suffered by Rohingya in Rakhine.
Some 600,000 remain confined in Myanmar camps and villages, unable to leave without permission.
Many have tried to escape over the years to Thailand or Malaysia, often paying extortionate fees to human traffickers for places on overcrowded, decrepit boats.
- 'We are helpless' -
The next hearing for the detained Rohingya in Pathein will be December 20.
They are the third group in recent months to be caught, arrested and put on trial in their attempt to flee Rakhine.
To the outrage of rights groups, the children and teenagers have so far been sent to a detention centre while one five-year-old child was imprisoned with his mother and the rest of the group.
All 52 people were sentenced to two years behind bars.
"Myanmar authorities should urgently free Rohingya jailed for exercising their right to freedom of movement," said John Quinley from Fortify Rights.
He cited the arrests as an example of continued efforts by the government to destroy the Rohingya.
"The International Court of Justice should issue provisional measures to stop the ongoing persecution and violence."
The Rohingya garner little sympathy within Myanmar, where many people buy the official line that the minority are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even though many trace their roots back generations.
"We are helpless. We've been here eight years and have no jobs," one Rohingya man from Thetkalpyin camp told AFP by phone.
"We hope she (Suu Kyi) will do her best to reveal the truth and solve our problems."