As a member of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva from 2011 to 2013, Malaysia had plenty of opportunities to hear serious allegations of systematic army abuses in the final days of the civil war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Ultimately, a commission appointed by the UN Secretary-General determined that up to 40,000 civilians died in the last months of the fighting, and Britain’s ITN Channel 4 brought the brutal final days into high definition with its searing award-winning documentary “No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka.” Unlike other Asian nations serving on the Human Rights Council who sided with Sri Lanka, Malaysia abstained in votes on Sri Lanka resolutions, making what was considered nothing more than a nod to concerns about the seriousness of those crimes.
Fast forward to 2014 and local Malaysia politics are pushing rights principles out the window. Malaysia is pursuing a case that has all the earmarks of a politically motivated vendetta against Lena Hendry, a Program Coordinator at the nongovernmental organization Pusat Komas, for violating the seldom-enforced Film Censorship Act for arranging a screening of “No Fire Zone” last July in Kuala Lumpur. Criminal penalties for censorship violations are severe. Hendry could spend three years in prison and face fines up to RM 30,000 (US$9,500). Her selective persecution is seen by other showings, including to parliamentarians and by another NGO, which did not result in any government action.
An upcoming defense application to strike out the charge, scheduled for February 6 in the Kuala Lumpur Criminal High Court, is an opportune time for the Malaysian government to bow out of this ill-advised venture into censorship.
Calling it quits now on the case will reaffirm Malaysians’ rights to see the films they want, exercise their right to free expression, and freely assemble. It will also reaffirm previous positions of the government not to back Sri Lanka’s effort to wipe out the enormous blot on its human rights record.
Failing to step back and drop the case against Hendry will further sully Malaysia’s own reputation for clamping down on opposition organizations, civil rights activists, and outspoken critics.
Hendry has acknowledged the odds against her are long, in part because, usually, requests to strike out charges don’t come up until later in the court process. But she and her lawyers clearly hope the government responds to local international embarrassment and drops the matter. But if Malaysia sticks to its original course of action, Hendry’s full trial will start on March 31. If it does, Malaysia’s international reputation will be in the dock along with Hendry.