Irene Fernandez judged today in the absence of her legal counsel

Press release

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint program of the FIDH and the OMCT, has been informed that the trial of Mrs. Irene Fernandez, Director of Tenaganita, an NGO working with migrant women, began yesterday in front of the Magistrates Court 5B, in Kuala Lumpur.

Mrs. Fernandez was charged in 1995 with "publishing false information with malevolent intentions" under Section 8A of the PPDA (Printing, Presses and Publications Act) following the publication of a report entitled "Memorandum on abuses, acts of torture and inhuman treatment towards migrant workers in detention camps". This report contained allegations of ill-treatment of migrant populations, based on Mrs Fernandez’s work on interviews with over 300 migrant workers. Mrs Fernandez’s trial began in 1996 and is known to be the longest trial so far in the history of Malaysia.

The Observatory is very preoccupied by this sudden decision to judge Mrs Fernandez. Indeed, the judgement was planned to take place on 17 March 2004, once the submissions from the defence and the prosecution would have been gathered.

However, according to the information received, on 7th October, the Magistrate Juliana Mohamed requested the use of the Court for the decision on Irene’s trial and on 9th October, Mrs. Fernandez’s lawyers received a letter from the Magistrate requesting them to send the written submissions by October 11th. In these conditions, Mrs Fernandez has not been able to prepare her defence properly.
Yesterday, Mrs. Fernandez was allowed to make oral submissions before the court. A second audience is planned today, 15th October 2003.

The Observatory strongly fears that today’s date may have been set up on purpose in order to take profit of the absence of Mrs. Fernandez’s Senior counsel for the trial, Mr. Pura Valen. Mr. Valen indeed left Malaysia on 7th October, to conduct a two-week investigation mission in Pakistan mandated both by the FIDH and the Observatory.

The Observatory considers that the occurrence of this trial in such abrupt conditions contradicts the right to a fair and impartial trial guaranteed by international human rights instruments. Moreover, the Observatory considers that the charges against Mrs. Fernandez are arbitrary since they only aim at sanctioning her right to "freely publish, impart or disseminate to others views, information and knowledge on all human rights and fundamental freedoms" guaranteed by the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders (9 December 1998).

The Observatory urges the Malaysian authorities to ensure the independence of the judiciary, so that Mrs. Fernandez be acquitted of all the charges against her, since these charges are arbitrary. In addition, the Observatory requests the highest authorities to ensure that Mrs. Fernandez be granted a fair and impartial trial.

More generally, the Observatory urges the Malaysian authorities to conform with international human rights standards, as well as with the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Declaration of Human Rights Defenders.

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