A fishing community in Indonesia's Aceh region is demanding protection from prosecution after three fishermen were sentenced to prison last year on immigration offenses linked to helping bring Rohingya ashore.
That court case, the first of its kind, has made fishermen in Indonesia's westernmost province more hesitant about helping the persecuted minority from Myanmar as they make perilous boat journeys in search of work and safe haven.
In June, a court in North Aceh regency sentenced fishermen Abdul Aziz, Faisal Afrizal and Raja bin Husen to five years each in prison after finding them guilty of smuggling dozens of Rohingya into Indonesia in return for payments of 1.5 million rupiah (U.S. $104) each.
According to a copy of the verdict obtained by BenarNews, Faisal received 7 million rupiah ($487) from a smuggling ring and used some of the cash to rent a boat for picking up the Rohingya.
"The fishermen received a payment, took the money and they were told: 'Please bring my people ashore,'" said Miftach Cut Adek, a leader of the Acehnese fishing community.
"It was wrong that they took the money, but should they be jailed for five years just for taking 5 million rupiah ($348)?" he told BenarNews. "They are just poor fishermen."
Close to 800 of Myanmar's persecuted Rohingya minority have ended up stranded in Indonesia on their way to third countries, according to UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency.
In December, months after the three were sentenced, Acehnese fishermen were anxious to rescue more Rohingya who were found in a damaged boat drifting off the coast, but were afraid they could be arrested for doing so, local activists said.
"How can we bear to see women and children drifting on a boat without food or drink, and being ill? We're talking about humanity," said Badruddin Yunus, the leader of the fishing community in Bireuen.
Local authorities initially refused to allow the boatload of 120 Rohingya to land, but let them in on Dec. 28 after UNHCR and human rights groups appealed to Indonesia to permit the Rohingya come ashore.
Badruddin said his fellow fishermen have done what they could to assist their three colleagues who are in prison.
"We tried to help because we sympathize with their families and children. They wanted to help people but were punished instead," Badruddin said.
Miftach said the community had appealed to the authorities to show leniency, arguing that their main motivation was to save lives.
"We talked to the police ... asking them not to be punished harshly. We accept that they are guilty, but they should not be severely punished," Miftach said.
"When corrupt officials get caught, their children have everything they need, but when [fishermen] are in jail, their children and wives may die of starvation," Miftach said.
The jailed fishermen were their families' only breadwinners, according to Thariq Fharline, who heads Aksi Cepat Tanggap (ACT), a charity group in the North Aceh town of Lhokseumawe.
"They [families] are now struggling, especially economically. We help them with food and there are other NGOs that donate to them," Thariq told BenarNews.
Since a brutal August 2017 crackdown by security forces in Myanmar's Rakhine state against the Rohingya, hundreds of people from the stateless ethnic group have paid traffickers to transport them by sea to Thailand and Malaysia.
The Rohingya hope to find work away from Myanmar or crowded refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh. The crackdown led about 740,000 to flee to the camps in and around Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar, now home to about 1 million Rohingya.
Over the years, groups of Rohingya have packed into boats and sailed off in search of asylum in other countries where they have often been refused entry.
Indonesia is not a party to the U.N. 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. It prohibits refugees from obtaining jobs and attending formal schools.
Usman Hamid, executive director of Amnesty International in Indonesia, urged countries in Southeast Asia to immediately address issues involving Rohingya.
"There will always be potential for people smuggling in border areas and this must be investigated effectively and transparently," Usman told BenarNews.
"All countries, including Indonesia and neighboring countries, have an obligation to provide assistance to people found at sea who are in danger of drowning and are in distress," he said.
Badruddin, meanwhile, said Acehnese fishermen would step up despite fears of prosecution.
"Our fishermen are 100 percent ready to help. Not only will we bring them ashore, but we'll also provide food for them," he said. "But we hope that they will not run away from their shelters."
On Sunday, four Rohingya escaped from a shelter in Lhokseumawe, said Marzuki, a spokesman for the local task force caring for Rohingya. This followed an incident where eight Rohingya fled from the same camp two weeks earlier.
Marzuki, who goes by one name, said he worried that they would be victims of human trafficking.
"They are refugees, not prisoners. They are looking for a better life like us. But, it looks like there's a group behind their escape because someone saw a car that looked like it was waiting for them," he told BenarNews.
Marzuki said the task force had met with UNHCR representatives, immigration officials and the International Organization for Migration to discuss building a permanent shelter for Rohingya in neighboring North Sumatra province.
"They won't have to worry. There will be plenty of food and decent beds," he said.
[Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.]