(New York) The Malaysian government should allow human rights defender Irene Fernandez to travel abroad to attend meetings with other activists, Human Rights Watch said today. Fernandez, one of Malaysia’s most prominent advocates for the rights of migrant workers and women, was denied a passport on November 4.

On October 16, the Kuala Lumpur magistrate’s court convicted Fernandez of “maliciously publishing false news” for issuing a groundbreaking 1995 report that documented beatings, sexual abuse and inadequate food in detention camps for migrant workers. Her one-year jail sentence has been stayed pending appeal.

Over the course of the seven-year trial, the longest in Malaysian history, Fernandez applied for—and received—a passport 42 times. The prosecutor urged the court to deny Fernandez’s most recent request for a passport on the grounds that she would likely “tarnish the image of the country” if allowed to speak about Malaysia’s human rights situation at international conferences, which she is scheduled to attend this month in the United States and Canada.

The magistrate’s court agreed with the prosecutor and rejected Fernandez’s application, although the prosecutor conceded that Fernandez was not likely to flee. Fernandez is appealing the decision. Human Rights Watch urged the government to withdraw its objection to the issuance of the passport when the case goes to the Kuala Lumpur High Court.

“Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi should take this opportunity to show that Malaysia can and will tolerate criticism,” said Brad Adams, executive director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. “Fernandez was sentenced to a year in prison for speaking out against abuses. Now the government is adding insult to injury by keeping her from traveling abroad for the same reason. This does not bode well for free expression in Malaysia.”

Although the prosecution of Irene Fernandez began under the government of Mahathir Mohamed, who stepped down as prime minister on Friday, October 31, her case is a test of how Abdullah’s government will address free expression. Mahathir’s government harassed and sometimes jailed its critics, and restricted civil society groups and the media.

In his opening speech as prime minister, Abdullah stressed the need for free expression in Malaysia. “We believe democracy is the best system of governance,” he told the Malaysian parliament on November 3. “We must be open and ready to accept criticism and contrary views to ensure that a culture of democracy thrives.”

“Prime Minister Abdullah needs to live up to his rhetoric,” Adams said. “He can signal the beginning of a new era of openness in Malaysia, or just continue with Mahathir’s policies. Malaysia’s image will be tarnished if Irene Fernandez is forced to stay at home.”

Fernandez is scheduled to attend a conference on human rights defenders in the United States and a conference on HIV/AIDS in Canada. The conference in Canada is being held by the International Council of AIDS Service Organizations, of which Fernandez is a board member. The conference in the United States is co-sponsored by the Carter Center, founded by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, and the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Human rights activists from around the world will attend the conference.