Malaysia: Threatened with prison under Mahathir for 1995 truth, Irene Fernandez vindicated in 2008 Print E-mail
Tenaganita (Women's Force) ~~ Malaysia ~~ Monday, 24 November 2008


The Kuala Lumpur High Court has acquitted Dr Irene Fernandez, co-founder and executive director of Tenaganita.

Scroll down to read some details of the legal terror imposed on Irene over the past decade, and read still more HERE
The first words as she was congratulated, Irene said, “I am free! At last I am free”

A scheduled court appeals hearing, which was to last until Friday 28 November was today ended when Judge Mohamad Apandi Ali gave his decision and set aside her 2003 conviction and reversed the conviction and sentencing.

Minutes later, Irene walked out of the court-room, free at last, saying, “I’m relieved that there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”

“I spoke the truth (and now) the conviction has been set aside,” she added.

It was a day of double surprises. The defence lawyer, M. Puravalen had asked that the motion of appeal stay. Turning the Public Prosecutor Shamsul Sulaiman, the judged then asked if the prosecution opposed the motion.

“Having been served the type-written notes, and having thoughtfully studied the notes, I have decided in the interest of justice, that justice itself would not be served by opposing this appeal.”

“You do not oppose, does that mean that you concede the case?” the judge asked.

“We do not oppose the appeal,” was the quiet reply.

The defence then asked that the conviction and sentence be set aside. The came the final surprise. From the bench, the judge gave his decision. “In the light of the respondent and Public Prosecutor is not opposing the appeal, I set aside and reverse the conviction and sentencing.”

The court room erupted into continuous loud cheers which the judge had to wave down. It has been thirteen long years, too long for anyone to wait to have their name cleared by the courts. But Irene has finally found closure.

Surrounded by her family, friends, colleagues and supporters, Irene said that the rights of defenders must be upheld. Ultimately, it is the people that we work with ­ migrants and refugees ­ that have been handed this victory. There is also vindication in the work that Irene does, and the organization that she heads.

Finally, to Ms Moganambal, who is Irene’s defence lawyer ­ from Irene and Tenaganita ­we thank you and we love you.

 October 22, 2003, 22 October 2003

MALAYSIA: A vicious dose of injustice for Irene Fernandez


The 12-month prison sentence imposed on human rights activist Irene Fernandez, handed down on October 16 by magistrate Juliana Mohamed, was a shameful day for the justice system in Malaysia.

Charged with “maliciously publishing false news” under section 8A(2) of the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984, Fernandez's prosecution began on June 10, 1996, and is the longest criminal trial in Malaysia's history. Fernandez's supposed crime was the release of a memorandum at a press conference in August 1995 that alleged torture, death and dehumanising conditions in the country's migrant detention camps.

According to the magistrate, “the court found the prosecution had proven beyond all reasonable doubt the existence of malice”. Yet over the past seven-plus years, the court heard many witnesses verify Fernandez's allegations of inhumanity in the detention camps.

Witnesses included five former detainees who described how they experienced (and/or observed others) being stripped naked on arrival at the camps, having money stolen by camp authorities, being beaten on the genitals, having their heads shaved, suffering malnutrition and dehydration and being forced to wear the same unwashed clothes for months.

The witnesses also told of deaths and suicides in the camps, and of detainees being forced to masturbate and perform oral sex on one another in public. In Fernandez's words, the sexual abuse was a form of slavery, a tool for authorities to destroy any dignity left in the migrants.

In 1995, a team of Malaysian journalists went undercover to investigate the conditions in the Semenyih Detention Camp and came to the same conclusions as were stated in Fernandez's memorandum. Initially, their report, “Death Camps”, was suppressed. When it was subsequently published as “Shattered Dreams”, the journalists won the Prime Minister's Award for Investigative Journalism, which included a cash prize of 3000 ringgits. Eight years later, Fernandez has been awarded 12 months behind bars, bail set at 3000 ringgits (A$1140), and the surrender of her passport.

Magistrate Juliana Mohamed has shot the messenger of hope for Malaysia's migrants, mainly Indonesians, Filipinos, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis, who have played such a crucial role in Malaysia's economic development. Equally, the verdict spits in the face of freedom of expression and adds another nail to the coffin of Malaysia's much-maligned judiciary.

[Lynette Dumble, international co-ordinator and director of the Global Sisterhood Network.]

Issue #342 25 November 1998.

Women, APEC and human wrongs

By Lynette Dumble

KUALA LUMPUR -- On the eve of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum here, two courageous women, feminist activist Irene Fernandez and eye surgeon Wan Azizah Ismail, occupied centre stage at the Asia Pacific People's Assembly. Both received a standing ovation from the 700 delegates from 29 countries who had come to reclaim the rights of ordinary people which have been eroded by APEC's push for trade liberalisation.

Over previous weeks, Fernandez and Ismail have shared another scene, in the docks of adjoining court rooms in suburban Kuala Lumpur; Fernandez charged with “maliciously publishing false news”, and Ismail in solidarity with her husband, Anwar Ibrahim, who has been charged with corruption.

While news of the Ibrahim proceedings is instantaneously transmitted to every corner of the globe, in contrast, the Fernandez trial attracts sparse media attention.

Arrested at her home in March 1996, Fernandez is now at the centre of the longest trial in Malaysian legal history. With no end in sight, she has already appeared in court for 160 days.

Why? Because she dared to make public the abuse, torture, and dehumanising conditions of Malaysia's migrant detention camps.

Director of Tenaganita, a women's rights non-government organisation based in Kuala Lumpur, Fernandez's “blasphemy”, which described the horrific conditions imposed on 300 HIV-infected women and men held in Malaysia's migrant detention camps, was scheduled to appear in the Kuala Lumpur daily The Sun in mid-June 1995. The article was withheld.

In turn, Tenaganita released a memorandum to appropriate officials and the media in August 1995. Highlighted were the all too familiar details of sexually abused women migrants, detained because of illegal entry or disputes with their employers, and the exposure of both men and women migrant detainees to malnutrition, dehydration, beatings and sickness in the absence of medical care.

Denying any allegation of human rights violations, authorities admitted that more than 70 migrant detainees had died in custody between 1992-95. A “visitors panel” was then appointed to study conditions in the detention camps, but neither the Malaysian public nor international human rights observers have any idea what the panel discovered.

Subsequently, the head of the police field force responsible for migrant detention camps countered with charges of criminal defamation against Fernandez, leading to her arrest under the Printing Presses and Publications Act of 1984.

Released on bail, Fernandez maintains her vigil for the rights of migrants. These Indonesians, Filipinos, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis -- as objects of sexual abuse, the exploited in pesticide-riddled plantations and the denigrated who clean lavatories and sidewalks -- have played a crucial role in Malaysia's transition from a so-called developing nation into one that boasts its “development”.

Migrants were the ancestors of most present-day Malaysians. Today they are an expanding underclass sentenced to 4D-type employment; that is, for the dirty, demanding, degrading and dangerous jobs.

In the past year, some 140,000 illegal migrants were deported from Malaysia. A further 700,000 newly arrived migrants were legalised, and destined for 4D employment.

With the collapse of the Asian economies, Fernandez argues that the additional expense of deporting illegals and retraining new migrants will further subordinate migrant workers, who already contend with “terrible living conditions that no ordinary Malay could bear to face”.

Thirty one months after her arrest, Fernandez has good reason to expect that she will be convicted. Migrant witnesses to the truth of Fernandez's allegations have either been deported or may even be dead as a direct consequence of their atrocious ill-treatment. Nonetheless, Fernandez believes that “truth will prevail and will set us free”.

This sentiment was echoed throughout the courthouse packed with feminists as Fernandez defends her freedom, under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, to argue the rights of Malaysia's politically voiceless underclass.

The lessons of World War II which prompted the Universal Declaration on Human Rights are long forgotten amidst today's spawning political corruption, military and police brutality, discrimination against indigenous and ethnic communities, bio-piracy and profiteering by transnational companies, and violence of every nature against women.

Fraught with human wrongs which degrade and impoverish women, indigenous people, migrants, the landless, the hungry, the unemployed, the disabled and countless other minorities, APEC's agenda of free trade and investment by 2010 for developed economies, and 2020 for developing economies, reflects an insatiable thirst for profit.

In the quest for universal freedom and justice, 300 foreign and Malaysian rights activists rallied behind Fernandez and Ismail on November 15 in Kuala Lumpur to denounce both APEC's latest chapter of imperialist economics and Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's oppression.

[Dr Lynette Dumble is coordinator of Global Sisterhood Network.]