Malaysian activist acquitted after 12 years of legal battles

The Kuala Lumpur High Court acquitted a prominent migrant workers’ rights activist on Monday. The decision ended one of the longest-running court cases in Malaysian legal history after more than 12 years of legal battles.

Irene Fernandez, founder and director of human rights organization Tenaganita, was arrested in 1996 for reporting that detained illegal immigrants suffered from malnutrition and torture.

A magistrate court held that the report was “maliciously publishing false news” under the restrictive Printing Presses and Publications Act.  

Amnesty International repeatedly campaigned for her acquittal, stating that Irene Fernandez had been targeted for her legitimate work as a human rights defender.

Seven years after her arrest, she was sentenced to one year imprisonment, but she appealed, and was set free on bail. However, her civil rights were restricted. As a convicted person, she was barred from standing as parliamentary candidate in the 2004 Malaysian elections and she could not travel outside the country freely.

She and her group Tenaganita have continued to work for the rights of migrant workers despite the civil rights restrictions she was under.  In a meeting with Amnesty International in Kuala Lumpur in August 2008, she discussed helping migrant workers who have been deceived by their recruiters/employers and fallen victim to trafficking in labour.  

In 2005, Irene Fernandez was chosen as one of four recipients of the prestigious Right Livelihood Award, known as the ‘Alternative Nobel Prize’.  In her acceptance speech in Sweden, she said:

“In the absence of a free media, of an independent judicial system and independent oversights for police and state accountability, I was found guilty of publishing false news … I came out of court smiling because I knew that I had spoken the truth; we had not compromised on fundamental rights and dignity of people. The conviction has … brought about a new awakening to Malaysians and to the global community.”  

On 24 November, Malaysia’s Public Prosecutor dropped his opposition to Fernandez’ appeal due to the discovery of “systematic errors” manifested in the court records.

There are currently an estimated 2.6 million migrants living in Malaysia and migrant workers comprise a majority of those designated by the Malaysian government as “illegal immigrants”.   Earlier this year, Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak announced large-scale crackdowns to expel undocumented migrants in Malaysia, targeting hundreds of thousands of migrant workers living in an irregular situation.