Libel suits undermine the legitimate work of rights defenders

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The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights is concerned that human rights lawyer Charles Hector was left with little choice other than accepting a settlement that has the effect of penalising his activities as a defender of the rights of migrant workers.

Charles (centre) Hector and his lawyer Francis Pereira (left) being interviewed by the media, 30 March 2011

Geneva-Paris, 26 August 2011 –. The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint programme of the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), expresses its concern about the outcome of the judicial case against human rights defender Charles Hector Fernandez, who was sued by a company for publishing information regarding the violation of the rights of 31 Burmese migrant workers in Malaysia.

On 25 August, the case against human rights defender Charles Hector Fernandez before the Shah Alam High Court ended in a settlement between the defender and the company that had sued him for civil “defamation”. According to the settlement, Hector will pay RM1 (less than US$1) in costs and the same amount in damages to the company and will publish a half-page apology in the Malaysian daily newspapers The Star and Nanyang Siang Pau.

Hector was sued in February 2011 by the Japanese-owned company Asahi Kosei, in Selangor, Malaysia, for publishing information on-line regarding the violation of the rights of 31 Burmese migrant workers. Asahi Kosei was demanding a compensation of US$3.3 million, in addition to a public apology, with the argument that these 31 Burmese workers have not been under their responsibility, as they were supplied to them by an ‘outsourcing agent’.

The Observatory sent an international mission to observe the trial against Hector and to investigate the situation of human rights defenders in Malaysia.

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“The case of Charles Hector Fernandez shows how powerful corporate interests are taking on and silencing a human rights defender by his horns. Using exorbitant civil libel claims against human rights defenders reporting alleged corporate abuse sends a dangerous precedent with a chilling effect on the legitimate work of human rights defenders,” said Ms. Sudha Ramalingam, following the observation of the trial.

The Observatory is concerned that the human rights defender in this case was left with little choice other than accepting a settlement having the effect of sanctioning his activities as a defender of the rights of migrant workers. For many years, Hector has provided vital legal assistance to workers and migrants seeking justice.

The Observatory calls upon the authorities of Malaysia to put an end to all forms of harassment against human rights defenders in the country, including through criminal or civil libel laws, and to ensure full conformity with the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and other international and regional instruments ratified by Malaysia. The Observatory also reminds private actors including business enterprises of their responsibility of respecting human rights and exercising due diligence to avoid complicity in abusing human rights in countries where they operate.

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