KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) -- Malaysia sent over 1,000 Myanmar nationals back to their strife-torn homeland on Tuesday despite a court order to halt the deportation, pending a petition by rights groups to suspend a plan they say could endanger the deportees' lives.
The 1,086 Myanmar citizens were sent back on three navy ships sent by Myanmar's military, which seized power in a Feb. 1 coup, sparking weeks of protests from pro-democracy activists. Malaysia had initially said it would deport 1,200.
Malaysia vowed not to deport Rohingya Muslims or refugees registered with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
But the agency has said at least six people registered with it are among the deportees. Refugee groups also say asylum seekers from the minority Chin, Kachin and non-Rohingya Muslim communities fleeing conflict and persecution at home are among those being deported.
Malaysia's Immigration Department Director-General said the repatriated Myanmar citizens did not include Rohingya refugees or asylum-seekers.
"All of those returned had agreed to be sent back voluntarily without being forced by any party," Khairul Dzaimee Daud said in a statement.
He did not respond to queries on why the repatriation was carried out despite the halt ordered by the Kuala Lumpur High Court.
The court had granted a stay until 10 a.m. on Wednesday, when it was scheduled to hear an application by rights groups for a judicial review to suspend the deportation.
Just before the court order, the migrants were bussed in from across the country to the naval base at Lumut in western Malaysia where the Myanmar ships were docked.
Those deported had been detained for immigration offences. Malaysia does not formally recognise refugees, treating them as undocumented migrants.
Amnesty International, one of the groups which asked for the judicial review, has said among the deportees were three people registered with the UNHCR and 17 minors who have at least one parent in Malaysia.
"We urge the government to reconsider its plans to send this group of vulnerable people back to Myanmar, where human rights violations are currently dangerously high," Katrina Maliamauv, Amnesty Malaysia director, said after the court ruling.
Concerns over deportation of unregistered asylum-seekers have persisted, as UNHCR has not been allowed to interview detainees for over a year to verify their status. The Southeast Asian nation is home to more than 154,000 asylum-seekers from Myanmar.
The UNHCR has not been allowed access to those deported on Tuesday.
The United States and other Western missions have been trying to dissuade Malaysia from proceeding with the deportation and urged the government to allow UNHCR to interview the detainees. They also say Malaysia is legitimising the military government by cooperating with the junta.