BY LYNETTE DUMBLE
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.]
From Green Left Weekly, October 22, 2003.
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