Malaysian Court Charges Activist for Alleging Refugees Mistreated in Detention

Ray Sherman and Noah Lee
Kuala Lumpur
Malaysian Court Charges Activist for Alleging Refugees Mistreated in Detention Heidy Quah Gaik Li (center), the founder of Refuge for the Refugees, speaks to reporters outside the Kuala Lumpur Court Complex, July 27, 2021.

A local activist was charged Tuesday for writing an allegedly offensive Facebook post claiming that refugees in Malaysia lived in poor conditions and were mistreated at an immigration detention center.

Meanwhile in a joint statement, Amnesty International and scores of other non-governmental organization protested the court action against activist Heidy Quah Gaik Li and said the government must “stop all forms of intimidation and threats against human rights defenders.”

Quah, the founder of Refugee for Refugees, an NGO, pleaded not guilty and was granted bail by the Kuala Lumpur Special Cyber Crime Sessions Court. She wrote the post last year when the authorities also questioned journalists about their critical reports on the government’s crackdown on undocumented migrants during the country’s first coronavirus wave.

Quah was charged with “knowingly making and initiating the transmission of offensive communication with intent to hurt other people’s feelings via her Facebook account,” according to the charge sheet seen by BenarNews.

In her Facebook post on June 5, 2020, Quah described her visit to an immigration detention center. She said that a female refugee being held there told her about poor living conditions and ill-treatment that detainees faced daily.

According to the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, under which Quah was charged, if convicted she could face a year in prison or a fine of up to 50,000 ringgit (U.S. $11,814) – or both.                   

Quah said she would keep speaking out for what she believes is right.

“I think it’s important in such a time as this, instead of clamping down on activists who try to speak out, we push for transparency within the system,” she told reporters outside the courthouse in Kuala Lumpur.

The country’s Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) had addressed the same issues that she had raised about immigration detention centers, Quah said via Facebook on Monday.

Suhakam’s annual reports have talked about “poor hygiene standards at the depot, abuse, mistreatment, neglect, and poor sanitation,” Quah said.

Such conditions could increase the risks of infections from COVID-19 and other communicable diseases, she said.

‘Stop threats against human rights defenders’

Also on Tuesday, some 80 NGOs and civil rights groups jointly demanded that the government drop the criminal charges against Quah “for exercising her constitutional right to freedom of expression.”

“[C]redible and accountable action by the government would have been to initiate an independent investigation on potential mismanagement, ill-treatment or abuse of power within and in relation to immigration detention centers,” said the statement signed by Amnesty International Malaysia, Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network, Asylum Access Malaysia and others.

In the months after the pandemic broke out last year, police and immigration officials frequently carried out raids to detain undocumented migrants, claiming the crackdowns were meant to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

In a case similar to Quah’s, in May 2020 police summoned a reporter for the South China Morning Post for sharing offensive and menacing content online, among other alleged offenses.

Then in July last year, police summoned journalists from TV network Al Jazeera’s Kuala Lumpur office as part of an investigation into its documentary on the plight of migrant workers amid coronavirus lockdowns.

And a month later, police seized computers and other equipment from the Qatar-based broadcaster’s KL office. Before the raid, police dismissed the TV news documentary as baseless and biased.


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