(New York) Malaysian human rights advocate Irene Fernandez should be cleared of all charges of maliciously publishing false news in a report that exposed abusive conditions in the country’s immigration detention camps, Human Rights Watch said today. A verdict in the seven-year trial, the longest in Malaysia’s history, is expected to be announced on October 14.
A prominent advocate for the rights of migrants and women in Malaysia for decades, Fernandez helped found the Kuala Lumpur-based rights organization Tenanganita (“Women’s Force”) in 1991. Human Rights Watch in 1996 honored Fernandez as a human rights defender.
In 1995 Tenaganita released a report documenting beatings, sexual violence against detainees by prison guards, and inadequate food and water in Malaysia’s immigration detention camps. Fernandez was arrested in March 1996 and charged with malicious publication of false news under the restrictive Printing Presses and Publications Act of 1984. Later released on bail, Fernandez stands to be fined or even imprisoned for publishing the report.
“Irene Fernandez should never have been charged for speaking out against the abuse of migrants,” said Brad Adams, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division. “Imposing criminal penalties would send a message that the Malaysian government, on the eve of a historic political transition, is still willing to use the law to silence its critics.”
The court’s verdict, originally scheduled to be announced in March 2004, was pushed up unexpectedly by the presiding judge, and comes just weeks before Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed hands power over to Abdullah Badawi, the deputy prime minister and minister of home affairs.
If Fernandez is convicted, her punishment would mark yet another chapter in Malaysia’s use of the law to stifle free expression under the Mahathir government, which came to power in 1981. Using various repressive laws, of which the Printing Presses and Publications Act is but one example, Malaysia’s government has seriously constrained non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the media and opposition political parties in violation of international standards on free expression and free association.
Malaysia’s record on migrants over the past two decades is equally poor. Although long a favored destination for both migrant laborers and refugees, Malaysia has developed a record of abuse against both groups. Most recently, the government has blocked Acehnese asylum seekers from Indonesia from registering with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) office in Kuala Lumpur.
“Rather than putting one of Malaysia’s most committed activists on trial for more than seven years, the Malaysian government should work to address the key issues that Irene Fernandez and Tenanganita have brought to light,” said Adams. “The court should end this marathon case and let Irene Fernandez get on with her work.”