BBCF

The Barnard-Boecker Centre Foundation

IRENE FERNANDEZ: Defender of Human Rights is Free!

Irene acquitted Dec. 2, 2008

Irene - Terry
Irene & TW, Stockholm, 2005

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia: A Malaysian court on Monday acquitted a prominent labour activist who was arrested 12 years ago for claiming that police tortured illegal immigrants in detention.

The Kuala Lumpur High Court ruled in favour of Irene Fernandez, director of the human rights group Tenaganita, who had appealed a one-year sentence issued in 2003 on charges of maliciously publishing false news.

“I’m so happy that finally truth and justice prevailed,” Fernandez, 62, told The Associated Press. “I should never have been charged in the first place.”
Background story follows:
IRENE received The Right Livelihood Award in 2005.She was nominated by BBCF 
The elegant and spacious halls of the Swedish House of Parliament are a long way from the jails and detention camps of Kuala Lumpur, but the two realities merged in Stockholm, December 9, 2005, when Irene Fernandez was awarded the Right Livelihood Award for, ““for her outstanding and courageous work to stop violence against women and abuses of migrant and poor workers.”                                                                                                                                                            
The friendly, plump middle-aged woman with an open face, and a quick smile was out on bail, appealing her sentence, one year in prison for her human rights work. When Irene became a school teacher, a safe and respected profession, her parents were proud of her. They were initially dismayed when she left that security to form a highly political and insecure a grassroots organization in 1991 – Tenaganita, committed to establishing ‘protective tools’ for women. Her parents became understanding and supportive of Irene, as are her husband and children, when her work resulted in improving the lives of the oppressed and endangered. She lives in a suburb of Kuala Lumpur with her family, in a home full of life, talk, ringing phones and music. She is someone who could be a seemingly ordinary neighbour anywhere, but she has stepped outside her comfortable home to risk her life and freedom. Irene has never forgotten her roots.
In her acceptance speech, Irene said, “I am a product of migrant labour. My father was a migrant worker from Kerala, India. He worked in the rubber plantations during the British rule in Malaysia. I know the experience, the pain, anxiety and discrimination that we went through. And it is this part of my history that gives me the passion and the zeal to commit to promote and protect migrant workers and women affected by violence, denied rights, dignity and justice.
We never dreamt that the road we have walked and the journey we have taken together with a domestic worker violently abused, or rescuing and rebuilding the life of a Cambodian female child trafficked into Malaysia, or obtaining redress and compensation to a Bangladeshi or a Nepali worker or empowering the most marginalized communities would bring us today to be with you and gain the global recognition through this award. It is fantastic. It is motivating. And the communities we work with are celebrating. They celebrate because it brings a renewed hope that this global recognition will foster solidarity internationally to move forward the struggle in order to gain their dignity and claim their rights.”
I first met Irene at the 1995 UN Women’s Forum in Beijing; she was a strong and powerful presence at workshops and rallies, speaking knowledgably about workers in homes, construction, sweatshops and agriculture. She returned home to a life of uncertainty, harassment and a long legal struggle because
Tenaganita published her report on the conditions and abuses of migrant labourers in Malaysia from surrounding Asian nations: Abuse, Torture, Dehumanized Treatment and deaths of Migrant Workers in Detention Centres. Rather than investigate the detailed information in the report, the Malaysian government harassed Tenaganita even though it admitted that 46 people had died of beri-beri and other serious conditions in these camps.
In March, 1996 the Malaysian government came to her home and arrested Irene and charged her with “maliciously publishing false news.” In seven years, during Malaysia’s longest trial, she was in court more than 300 times to defend herself and her group, but never neglected the conditions of the workers she defends. She had the courage and passion to continue and to expand her work. She says she gets her strength from her community; she gets frustrated, but never depressed. She says that would be accepting defeat – something she will never do.
On October 17, 2003, the court found Irene guilty and sentenced her to one year in jail. The judge said, “The offence cannot be regarded lightly as it had tarnished the country’s image.” Throughout her long legal struggles, Irene and Tenaganita have never let up on their daily work of education, advocacy and action.  On the legislative front, the organization succeeded in establishing reform amendments to rape laws, model contracts for overseas domestic helpers, and a domestic violence act, which opened up complaint procedures for victims
Malaysia is a paean to modern economic development. Downtown Kuala Lumpur looks sleek and prosperous; the Petronas towers, among the tallest buildings in the world, full of glittering shops and happy shoppers, rise golden over the superhighways, parks and elegant homes. The airport is an architectural triumph and a traveller’s dream of glass, trees and efficient function. Malaysia avoided the Asian economic crisis of the nineties with strong currency controls and nationalistic banking regulation; its prosperity continues.
The hidden cost of this development is the essential, exploitive part of “economic miracles” in today’s world: cheap labour.  Malaysia has more than 2 million foreign workers, some legal, some not; all subject to arbitrary mistreatment, confinement and expulsion; even those properly documented may be badly treated and denied basic human rights.
Irene places Tenaganita’s work squarely in the anti-globalization movement. She believes that economic prosperity and affluence for the global elite are based the oppression of many workers; the same struggle is played out everywhere.
We struggle for equality and people’s rights. The struggle in the region in each country is to reaffirm our democratic rights. Workers everywhere must be treated with the dignity and the human rights everyone deserves.” Irene says.
The Malaysian government, like all governments, undoubtedly knows this, hence the severity of the charges; if it admitted its exploitation, it would admit the failure of capitalism and globalization.
At the ceremony, she also said, “I believe that today what happens in Sweden will have repercussions for us in Asia. After all, we belong to one race, the human race and we have only one earth. This solidarity of people must ensure that we put people and the planet before profits. The earth we are given is not just for us but also for those who come after us. They need a tomorrow and that rests on us today. In Asia alone over 40 million people are on the move in search of work or anything to survive. There are over 60 million people, again in Asia, who go hungry each day. And more than half of humanity earns and lives on less than $2 euros/ day. 
Migrant workers are forced to leave their loved ones, their homes and sell all they have because they can no longer survive in their countries where poverty, unemployment and hunger is increasing day by day. Confronted with this reality, the poor are becoming vulnerable. Feminization of migration, particularly in Indonesia, Philippines, Cambodia and Sri Lanka is the norm of the day. Governments are more interested in exporting their last resource, the human being, as labour in order to get their remittances. The remittance is a source of foreign exchange to pay the countries’ debts to the rich countries via the international financial institutions. In short, the human person has become a commodity to be bought, sold, resold, used and discarded like a piece of tissue. It is the modern day slavery.
It is a slavery that is growing. It is a slavery that is institutionalized and legalized through repressive regulations like the Malaysian Immigration laws and the laws of many developed nations. Gripped with current globalization strategies that are imperialistic and exploitative, people are made to believe that this form of trade and economic growth which embodies centralization of wealth and power is the panacea for hunger, poverty, conflicts and violence. It’s a total illusion. It has devastated the lives of millions of people. It has robbed our communities of their resources, of our land and of our production processes. This form of globalization has turned every possible resource into a commodity. Let it be water, health or the human being, it has become a product, a commodity to be exploited for pure profit. The humanity in us is being numbed and killed. And we have to stop it.”   (for her complete speech see: www.rightlivelihood.org )
Tenaganita’s work includes immediate and urgent action, long term advocacy and education and providing facilities and a forum for migrants and women workers, those who have and people at risk from HIV/AIDS , domestic workers, general health concerns, regional health networking with other  countries, workers who require interventions upon arrest, detention and legal support and victims of trafficking. In 2002, the government banned paraquat after evaluating Tenaganita’s study: Poisoned and Silenced. Powerful corporate forces want the ban overturned.
In 2005 I nominated Irene Fernandez of Malaysia for the award; the prestige and publicity may help free her finally from the sentence hanging over her head. She was already dreaming of spending her prize when I talked to her in Stockholm: founding and funding an international grassroots network of migrant workers groups; setting up a new safe house for women who have been abused and are HIV+, expanding Tenaganita’s programs for agricultural workers and many projects which could use much more than her $100,000  prize.

A global campaign to free Irene and the publicity of her award undoubtedly contributed to her acquittal. Canadians who seldom face jail sentences for their work can take heart and direction for the work of social justice here; indeed, that an activist can receive honours and awards can be an inspiration for us all

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