Drop charges for film screening

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The Malaysian authorities should immediately drop charges against a rights activist accused of showing a film about Sri Lanka’s civil war without Censorship Board approval, Human Rights Watch has said.

Lena Hendry - Photograph:Haris Hassan/ fz.com
Lena Hendry – Photograph:Haris Hassan/ fz.com

Lena Hendry, of the human rights group Pusat Komas, was charged under the Film Censorship Act for organising a screening of “No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka” on 3 July 2013, in Kuala Lumpur. Hendry, whose trial starts on 21 October, faces up to three years in prison and a fine of RM30,000 (US$9,500).

“Malaysian authorities are flipping the switch off on basic freedoms by threatening to jail someone for showing a documentary,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “They should immediately drop the charges against Lena Hendry and find a way to undo the damage to Malaysia’s cultural reputation.”

On 3 July, Pusat KomasS held an invitation-only screening of “No Fire Zone” at the Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall after some negotiations with the Censorship Board. A contingent from the Sri Lankan embassy in Kuala Lumpur arrived at the assembly hall and unsuccessfully tried to stop the screening. Soon after, about 30 Malaysian Home Ministry officials, police, and Immigration Department personnel came, stopped the film, and arrested Hendry. They also arrested the Pusat Komas president and a board member but released both without charge.

Malaysia’s Film Censorship Act imposes criminal penalties for any showing of a film without Censorship Board approval, in violation of the right to freedom of expression. Hendry was charged under section 6 of the Act, which makes it an offence to produce, manufacture, have in one’s possession, circulate, distribute, or display such film or film-publicity material that has not been approved by the board.

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The charges against Hendry appear politically motivated, Human Rights Watch said. Shortly before the screening at the assembly hall, “No Fire Zone” was shown for members of parliament without incident. And it was screened soon after by other nongovernmental organisations without any arrests. Pusat Komas regularly organises private screenings of films on sensitive subjects, with admission by registration only.

“No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka” is an award-winning documentary about alleged war crimes by the Sri Lankan government during the final months of the Sri Lankan civil war in 2009. The documentary shows government artillery attacks that killed children, women, and the elderly and extrajudicial executions of captured fighters and civilians by government forces.

Sri Lanka has been the subject of two resolutions at the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council in which the government is criticised for failing to investigate alleged violations of the laws of war by both sides during the conflict.

In August, following her visit to the country, Navi Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights, was sharply critical of the government’s failure to prosecute those responsible for serious abuses. The Sri Lankan government has rejected the war crimes findings of Pillay, the film, and research by a UN panel of experts and human rights organisations.

On 24 October, Malaysia’s human rights record will be under scrutiny during its Universal Periodic Review at the Human Rights Council.

“Malaysia’s willingness to block the showing of ‘No Fire Zone’ and prosecute Hendry makes it a disturbing partner for Sri Lanka in whitewashing wartime atrocities,” Robertson said. “Malaysia should turn these missteps into an opportunity to join the many governments that are seeking a measure of justice for the Sri Lankan war’s many victims.”

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Malaysia will be among the governments attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka on 15-17 November. Support for human rights is enshrined in the Commonwealth Harare Declaration of 1991. The Commonwealth is empowered to investigate serious or persistent violations of the Harare Declaration and to recommend measures for action.

“Malaysia’s carrying Sri Lanka’s torch just weeks before the Commonwealth meeting suggests political expediency trumping respect for free speech,” Robertson said.

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