Kuala Lumpur – The Malaysian High Court on Tuesday ordered the government to compensate 29 rights activists for wrongful detention over a controversial gathering to discuss East Timor 13 years ago.
The court awarded a total of RM870,000 (253,000 dollars) to the activists, who were held by police in the Malaysian capital for up to six days.
In 1996, they had planned to host the Second Asia Pacific Conference on East Timor to discuss the troubled territory's struggle for independence from Indonesia and the human rights abuses there.
"The amount is sufficient to compensate the suffering that you endured during the detention," judge Wan Adnan Muhamad said in his verdict. The judge awarded RM30,000 to each of the activists.
Malaysia had opposed to the 1996 conference, saying it would harm bilateral ties with its neighbour Indonesia.
As the meeting was about to begin in a hotel, 400 people led by the ruling Umno leaders broke down the conference hall doors, flung chairs and abused the participants, the court was told.
Police later moved in to arrest more than 100 people, including journalists, while 40 foreign participants were deported. The activists later filed the suit to claim damages for their mistreatment during the arrest and detention.
'Attack ordered by the government'
Then United Nations special representative to East Timor Jose Ramos-Horta – now the Timorese president – was among the guests invited to the conference but was denied entry to Malaysia, the court heard during trial.
One of the mob leaders, Saifuddin Nasution Ismail, then an Umno youth secretary, had testified in court that the attack was ordered by the government. He is now an opposition MP.
The activists, some of whom are now opposition lawmakers, were jubilant over their court victory.
"We have been vindicated. The court recognised our action was justified and the police had unlawfully detained us," said opposition Keadilan MP Tian Chua, who was an organiser of the conference and was detained for six nights.
Independence in 2002
"This is also a recognition for those who have participated in the East Timor struggle that had been a long journey and gained important achievement later," he added.
East Timor achieved independence from Indonesia in 2002 after a referendum marred by bloodshed and rights abuses at the hands of Indonesian forces and their militia proxies.
Former army chief Wiranto is among a number of senior officers who have been indicted by UN prosecutors over gross human rights abuses during Indonesia's 24-year occupation, which claimed an estimated 100,000 lives.