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Dispatches: Remembering Irene Fernandez

Irene Fernandez, the incomparable head of Tenaganita, the NGO in Malaysia that has championed migrant workers’ and women’s rights for more than 20 years, died March 31.

Many of the more long-standing employees of Human Rights Watch remember vividly what the Malaysian government put Irene through after she released an eye-opening report in 1995 on the horrendous conditions in Malaysia for migrants held in immigration detention centers while awaiting sentencing or deportation.

She was charged with “malicious publication of false news,” and government officials didn’t even try to hide the fact that she was being punished for embarrassing them. Her trial lasted seven years during which time it was up to the court as to whether she could travel outside the country – as if she would flee and desert her calling in Malaysia. Irene was eventually convicted, sentenced to a one-year prison term but allowed out on bail until her appeal was heard. She had to wait five more years before the case was finally dismissed. The government’s case basically unraveled rather than coming to a dramatic conclusion – a series of delayed trial dates, new dates, lost papers, and on and on until the government eventually called it quits. Despite endless trips to court, Irene persevered no matter what the government threw at her.

Irene – I can’t remember anyone calling her anything but Irene – was working until hours before the fatal heart attack just days before her death – too young – age 67. She never ceased to be a role model for me – and I’m sure for many others. Tenaganita will survive – Irene made sure there was a strong organization in place – but her death marks the end of an era. Human Rights Watch honored Irene years ago with its Human Rights Defenders award. Today we mourn our loss. 


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