Human Rights Watch mourns the passing of the passionate and dedicated human rights activist Irene Fernandez. She died of heart failure on 31 March 2014, at age 67.
“Irene Fernandez’s fiery commitment to seek justice for people whose rights have been trampled was legendary, not just in Malaysia but throughout Asia,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “Many of us at Human Rights Watch have worked with Irene over many years, and we are profoundly saddened by this loss both personally and for the human rights community.”
A prominent advocate for the rights of migrants and women in Malaysia for decades, Fernandez helped found the Kuala Lumpur-based rights organisation Tenaganita (Women’s Force) in 1991. Tenaganita provides legal services and conducts advocacy on behalf of migrant victims of abuse, trafficking victims, refugees, and asylum seekers. In recognition of her tireless work and leadership, Human Rights Watch in 1996 honoured Fernandez with its human rights monitor award.
Fernandez was harassed repeatedly by the Malaysian government for her activism. In 1995 Tenaganita released a report documenting beatings and sexual violence against detainees by prison guards, and inadequate food and water in Malaysia’s immigration detention camps. Fernandez was arrested in March 1996 and charged with malicious publication of false news under the draconian Printing Presses and Publications Act of 1984.
After seven years of trial, she was found guilty in 2003 and sentenced to a year in prison. She was released on bail pending her appeal, but the government used her conviction to bar her from running for parliament in the 2004 elections. The conviction was finally overturned in November 2008, ending the 13-year case.
She was also a member of the organising committee of the recently concluded People’s Tribunal on Malaysia’s 13th general election.
Fernandez had received numerous other awards, including the Amnesty International Award in 1998; the International PEN Award in 2000; the Jonathan Mann Award in 2004; and the Right Livelihood Award in 2005.
“Once you met Irene, you could never forget her,” said Mickey Spiegel, senior Asia adviser at Human Rights Watch. “She was an inspiration, a teacher, a role model to many of us. Her passing marks the end of an era.”