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Malaysia ordered to compensate wrongly detained activists

Radio Australia - December 24, 2009

The Malaysian High Court has awarded compensation to 29 activists who were wrongfully detained in Malaysia 13 years ago. The group were part of a regional conference, held in the Malaysian capital in 1996, to discuss East Timor's struggle for independence. The forum was attacked by 400 people led by the ruling UMNO party, and police arrested more than 100 people. Tian Chua organised the conference, and is one of the activists who the government has been ordered to pay compensation. He's now an opposition MP and says the High Court's decision is recognition the government's actions were an act of violence.

Presenter: Christine Webster

Speakers: Tian Chua, Malaysian Opposition MP

Webster: Malaysia's High Court has found 29 activists who gathered for a regional meeting to discuss East Timor's struggle for independence from Indonesia were wrongly detained by police for six days. The activists share a total of 250,000 US dollars in compensation. Tian Chua says the government at the time opposed the 1996 conference because it didn't want to threaten its ties with Indonesia.

Chua: I think it's a vindication not so much receiving the compensation, but the recognition by the judiciary that the actions by the ruling parties in breaking down the East Timor conference was an act of violence, it was wrong we believe, and more importantly our efforts in fighting for not only the liberation of East Timor, but asserting the right to freedom of speech and the right for us to assemble and to show solidarity with human rights in other countries has been recognised.

Webster: The detention was for six days, was there ill treatment of the activists by the police involved?

Chua: Well we had been put into a very atrocious environment in the lock-up. For example the cells had been very crowded and we did not have clean water, and there was various inconveniences that had been caused by the detention. I think the question is not so much the ill treatment as such, as I think we can endure that, the whole question was at the time that there was a total suppression of any public discourse on the plight and crisis in East Timor, despite we were neighbours. Any attempt to raise issues on the problem of East Timor has been suppressed heavy-handedly, and that was the context that we were fighting against.

Webster: The incident happened quite a number of years ago now, why did it take so long to actually get compensation?

Chua: Well this probably just shows how slowly our judiciary rectified itself, and this is also part of a long process where Malaysia itself is still undergoing the process of democratisation. The 1996 incident was a prelude to a series of major social transformation in Southeast Asia.

Webster: Why was the second Asia Pacific conference on East Timor so controversial to the ruling UMNO Party at the time?

Chua: Well the entire region at the time was run by military dictatorships and autocratic leaders like Dr Mahathir. They felt that it was part of their responsibility and all we can say solidarity to affect each other. And Malaysia did not want to create any diplomatic tension with Indonesia.

Webster: Do you feel that the High Court could have made more rulings or given you more recognition of what you actually, the activists suffered?

Chua: Yes we were hoping for more powerful position of the High Court. However it seems that the judiciary system it's a cautious position, while recognising the abuses by the police, the court didn't want to admit that there was a government conspiracy.