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Malaysian Catholic human rights activist jailed

Activist Irene Fernandez has been sentenced to one year in prison after exposing human rights abuses at immigration camps in Malaysia.

She was found guilty last Thursday by the Kuala Lumpur Magistrates Court of 'maliciously publishing false news' after releasing a memorandum at a press conference in 1995 on alleged torture and death in immigration detention centres.

Her trial, which began in June 1996, has been the longest criminal trial in Malaysian history. She was arrested in 1996, then freed on bail, after releasing a report in 1994 which accused immigration camp guards of beating and sexually assaulting detainees. She has been released on bail pending an appeal at the High Court.

Irene Fernandez is a Catholic of Indian background. She is head of the Tenaganita rights group which helps plantation workers, sex workers and helps run HIV awareness programs. As part of its program for AIDS victims, the group interviewed migrant workers. This led to the discovery of their mistreatment which they then asked a newspaper to publicise.

The Malaysian Government prevented this report from appearing, but Tenaganita ran a press conference with two detainees to highlight the alleged abuses. The head of the police with responsibility for the camps then filed a case of criminal defamation against Ms Fernandez.

When a team from Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) visited her during her trial, Irene described how her faith had kept her going.

She said: "Each time I read what Christ has gone through, it has really motivated me…he never compromised on love and justice nor the truth".

She acknowledged the role played by local churches of many denominations in providing both spiritual and physical support.

Christian human rights activist jailed (Ekklesia)

Significant Cases: Irene Fernandez (Human Rights Watch)
Irene Fernandez sentenced to 12 months in jail (Asia Human Rights Commission)
The Trial of Irene Fernandez (Christian Solidarity Worldwide)

23 Oct 2003