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Human Rights Watch urges government to drop charges of "publishing false news" held against labour activist

(HRW/IFEX) - The following is a 22 November 2008 Human Rights Watch press release:

Malaysia: Drop Case Against Labor Activist
Country's Longest-Running Case Is Set to Resume

(New York, November 22, 2008) - The Malaysian government should exonerate Irene Fernandez, a leading labor activist convicted in 2003 on politically motivated charges of "publishing false news," Human Rights Watch said today. The Kuala Lumpur High Court has scheduled hearings next week in the criminal case against Fernandez, which has continued for more than 12 years.

In July 1995, Fernandez, the director of TENAGANITA, a nongovernmental organization that exposes the abuse of migrant workers in Malaysia, sent a public memorandum to the Malaysian government, titled "Abuse, Torture and Dehumanized Conditions of Migrant Workers in Detention Centers."

Fernandez was arrested at home on March 18, 1996. After a trial that lasted seven years, she was convicted on October 16, 2003, of publishing, with malicious intent, false news about the treatment of migrant workers awaiting deportation in Malaysia's notorious immigration detention centers. Her one-year prison sentence is still on appeal.

"Irene Fernandez and her organization documented the government's sadistic and humiliating treatment of migrants," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "These include random beatings in the middle of the night, HIV/AIDS detainees sleeping on a roofless porch, rain or shine, filth, food and water shortages, and totally inadequate medical care. Human Rights Watch has also documented such treatment."

Since her arrest 12 years ago, Fernandez has been free on bail, but the court holds her passport and she can travel only at its discretion.

The appeal process, which did not start until April 1, 2008, has seen a series of postponements. When it was discovered that 1,700 pages of the record, including witness statements, were missing, the hearing was postponed until May 12, only to be postponed again. The papers were unexpectedly found some time later. The case was again postponed on August 5 when it was discovered a computer virus had wiped out some newly typed notes. In October, Fernandez's defense lawyer said that he had received almost 9,000 pages of handwritten and typed notes, but that portions were "incomprehensible." Nevertheless, the presiding judge said the case would be concluded and a verdict delivered by mid-December.

"The Malaysian government should say 'enough is enough,' and end the dubious case against Irene Fernandez once and for all," said Adams. "Malaysia's image suffers when it continues to prosecute people, especially respected voices, for peaceful expression."

Updates the Fernandez case:

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