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ireneSomething very significant took place yesterday when a long running drama came to an end at the High Court: Irene Fernandez was finally free! Charged under the Printing Press and  Publications Act 1984 for making false statements, she had been hounded by the Government for more than 12 years. She reportedly went to court some 310 times in a trial that lasted almost seven and a half years and which finally ended in her conviction in 2003. She was sentenced to 12 months in prison but was allowed bail pending appeal.

The appeals process took another five years and was marked by delays and missing court documents. On November 23rd, Justice Datuk Mohamed Apandi Ali acquitted her after the Deputy Public Prosecutor said that, “having recently been served with the completed type-written records of the proceedings before the magistrate’s court, and having thoroughly studied those records, the public prosecutor has decided that the interest of justice will not be served by opposing this appeal.” “This decision was made taking into consideration the systemic errors that were manifest in those records and the peculiar circumstances of this case,” he added.

And what was her crime in the first place? She dared to speak truth to power. Her 1996 memorandum, Abuses, Torture and Dehumanized Treatment of Migrant Workers at Detention Centers, contained shocking allegations of inhuman conditions, abuse, torture and even rape at these detention centers. It was a telling indictment of the way Malaysia was treating hapless migrant workers.

The government’s reaction was swift and vicious. Instead of investigating the allegations, they turned on Irene with a fury not often seen. She was harassed, persecuted and prosecuted. The government appeared determined to show her no quarter, even impounding her passport to keep her from traveling. Not surprisingly, the more she was harassed, the more her fame and popularity grew. I think it is wonderful that so many people in so many different countries stood up for her and denounced the government for the shameful way it treated her.

The government’s reaction is more than just strange. Surely no government of ours can close its eyes to such abuses. It goes against everything that we as a nation believe in. Surely no government would be interested in protecting the perpetrators of such heinous crimes against hapless people in our custody. The proper response would have been for the minister concerned to express shock and promise a full investigation. In the end, the bureaucratic penchant for cover-up took over, and the fury of the state was unleashed against Irene. Perhaps the government wanted to make an example of Irene that it would brook no interference it the way it conducts itself.

I’m glad this nightmare is finally over for Irene Fernandez. The government surely owes Irene Fernandez an apology, and even compensation, for the way it abused her rights to freedom of expression and freedom from judicial harassment. The Prime Minister himself should offer this apology: after all, it was during his watch as Home Minister when this whole sordid episode began.

As citizens of a free nation we have the right to demand that our government acts with responsibility and in conformity with the law. The law is not just for citizens but for the governments, politicians and public servants as well; and when they fall short of it, we have a right to call them to account.

In my book, Irene Fernandez is a true Malaysian hero for standing up for truth and justice and for the most vulnerable segment of our society – the  disenfranchised, marginalized and despised migrant workers. To be sue, her message hurts because she reminds us that we are not as good as we think we are, that we have a long way to go to live up to the ideals upon which our nation was founded. Her courage and dedication however, inspires us all to believe that we can prevail over injustice and the abuse of power. Irene Fernandez makes me proud to be a Malaysian!

And while I am on this subject, I suggest that Irene Fernandez be conferred the Panglima Mangku Negara (which carries the title Tan Sri) for her sterling defense of migrant works and human rights. Certainly, she has done more to deserve it than many of the current holders.

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