|Baradan Kuppusamy | Dec 8, 08 12:12pm|
|After winning a gruelling 13-year court battle against a charge of ‘maliciously publishing false news’, human rights crusader Irene Fernandez is seeking 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 Fernandez, executive director of Tenaganita, a migrant rights NGO.
“It is also a major victory for human rights activism. The authorities now know that we will fight, and fight good and hard, and will not be cowed.”
Fernandez now plans to run again for Parliament. She did not succeed in her first attempt in the 1999 general election, when she stood in the Subang Jaya parliamenary constituency on a Keadilan ticket.
“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 told IPS.
It was believed by diplomats, the political opposition and human rights organisations that the authorities had targeted Fernandez for her persistent efforts to champion Asian migrant workers and to protect them from mistreatment and exploitation by employers and 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’, punishable with a mandatory minimum of 12 months’ imprisonment.
That year she had circulated a memorandum to the media, foreign missions and international human rights bodies, in which she drew attention to deplorable conditions in overcrowded immigration detention centres.
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 a 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.
“The trial and sentence were hanging over me like (the) sword (of Damocles) for 13 years. I suffered hugely but remained unbowed,” Fernandez, 62, said.
“The trial was a heavy burden. I could not travel, stand for elections, raise funds or even speak at some forum. This was 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 claimed.
“They wanted to cow human rights activists by making an example out of me. 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. 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. Nearly four million – legal or undocumented – Asian migrant workers in Malaysia might end up being jobless if the turmoil persists.
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,’’ she said.
Bar Council chairperson Ambiga Sreenevasan said of the trial: “It is bad that Fernandez had to suffer for 13 years before justice was finally granted. The ordeal is over for her but for the judiciary, the journey ahead is long to regain its lustre as an equal and capable branch of a democratic government.”
Brad Adams, Asia director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, said: “If Malaysia had respected rights, freedom, democracy and an independent judiciary, the system would have never charged her in the first place,
“It was a trial where freedom of expression was challenged, where human rights defender was criminalised and where there was absolute disregard for the rights of detainees and minorities like migrant workers and refugees.” – IPS