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Rights Champion Seeks Political Career

Contributed by Anonymous on Wednesday, December 03 @ 01:11:20 CST

Foreign Workers
By Baradan Kuppusamy

KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 3 (IPS) - After winning a gruelling 13-year court battle to avoid being jailed on charges of maliciously publishing false news, Malaysia's best-known human rights champion seeks a political career to continue defending migrant workers and other vulnerable sections of society.

"I refused to yield, I was focused and relentless and in the end won," said Irene Fernandez, executive director of Tenaganita, a leading human rights non-government organisation (NGO) that has a reputation for defending migrant workers against ill treatment and exploitation. "It is also a major victory for human rights activism," she told IPS in an interview. "The authorities now know that we will fight and fight good and hard and will not be cowed."

Fernandez now plans to run for parliament. "It’s important that I have the opportunity to be a member of parliament, to be a voice for the communities that I have been working with," she said. It was widely believed by diplomats, the political opposition and human rights organisations that Fernandez was targeted by the authorities for her persistent efforts to protect and champion legions of Asian migrant workers from mistreatment and exploitation by employers, a vigilante force called ‘RELA’ and other enforcement agencies. Her ordeal began in 1996 when she was charged under Section 8A (1) of the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984, with publishing "false news" -- a serious crime in Malaysia punishable with a mandatory one year in prison. That year she had circulated a memorandum to the media, foreign missions and international human rights organisations in which she drew attention to deplorable conditions in overcrowded detention centres and the shoddy treatment meted out to migrant workers. She alleged, in the memorandum, that migrant workers were mistreated, poorly fed, abused and regularly beaten. The memorandum, based on research conducted by her staff and other experts, sparked an international outcry that severely embarrassed the government, but brought immediate relief to depressed migrant workers. The government took steps to improve camp conditions, provide more nutritious food and medicine and assure the international community but charged Fernandez in court. After a long and harrowing trial and despite international objections, she was found guilty in 2003 and sentenced to the mandatory one year in jail. She appealed the sentence immediately but for five years she was dragged from one court to another as her appeal suffered numerous delays and postponements. On Nov. 24, eight years after she filed her appeal, the Attorney General finally made the decision to withdraw the charge on the grounds that the appeal record was incomprehensible. At one point in the appeal the court was informed that notes of evidence of important prosecution witnesses were missing. Later the notes were miraculously found but not legible. Further delays occurred after a computer virus wiped out notes required for the trial. "The trial and sentence were hanging over me like a sword for 13 years," Fernandez said. "I suffered hugely but remained unbowed." "The 13-year long trial was a heavy burden. I could not travel, stand for elections, raise funds or even speak at some forums," Fernandez,62, recalled. "This is a case of political persecution designed to force me to give up on my campaigns and retire." By persecuting her the authorities had wanted NGOs to do charity work and leave advocacy and political activism alone, Fernandez said. "They wanted to cow human rights activists by making an example out of me," she said. "They wanted to show the people that rights activism is dangerous and dirty work and anti-national." She has vowed to step up her work helping migrant workers, women and HIV/AIDS campaigns. "The struggle is far from over...there is a significant rise in the number of cases of sexual and physical abuse, torture of migrant workers," she said. "Conditions at detention centres and prisons remain deplorable." "In fact the struggle has just started with the world economy in turmoil and millions of migrant workers on the front line of unemployment," she said adding that nearly four million -- legal and undo*****ented-- Asian migrant workers in Malaysia might end up being jobless if the turmoil persist. In 2005 Fernandez won the Right Livelihood Award -- the alternative Nobel Prize -- in recognition of her wide-ranging human rights activism. "Migrants are human beings. They have the same rights as all of us.’’

"It is bad that Fernandez had to suffer for 13 years before justice was finally granted,’’ said Bar Council chairman Ambiga Sreenevasan. "The ordeal is over for her but for the Malaysian judiciary the journey ahead is long to regain its lustre as an equal and capable branch of a democratic government." "If Malaysia had respected rights, freedom, democracy and an independent judiciary the system would have never charged her in the first place," said Brad Adams, Asia director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch. "It is a trial where freedom of expression was challenged, where human rights defender is criminalised and where there is absolute disregard for the rights of detainees and minorities like migrant workers and refugees," he said. (END/2008)



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