Malaysian human rights lawyer Malik Imtiaz Sarwar was awarded the 2009 Bindmans Law and Campaigning Award in London last night, marking a controversial milestone in a country that likes to think itself a champion of democracy.
Organised by British-based human rights magazine, Index on Censorship, this particular award is given to outstanding human rights activists who have set legal precedents in the fight against injustice.
When contacted by The Malaysian Insider today, Imtiaz said he was “happy” and honoured by the award which seemed to justify his efforts in pushing the human rights campaign here over the last 10 years.
“It’s good because it gives the opportunity to focus on what is happening here and the restrictive attitudes faced, including freedom of expression which undermines democracy,” he said.
He related he learnt about the nomination indirectly only three to four weeks ago, from a fellow lawyer from an international law monitoring group who was in town to observe the case of Raja Petra, the editor of online news site “Malaysia Today”.
He had been nominated by a group called Article 19, which fights to bring freedom of expression around the world.
But he noted the award was a double-edged sword, which drew undesirable attention to Malaysia.
“At the same time, it’s sad. There were other people from Egypt, Zimbabwe, a Filipino who were nominated for their struggle to change the system.
“What does this say about our country? The world now sees us on par with Zimbabwe and Egypt,” Imtiaz highlighted, adding that it was “not a great honour” for Malaysia to be associated with the democratically resistant countries like Zimbabwe and Egypt.
He hopes the government will not treat his award as an excuse “to block views” but to allow more room for dissenting views to be heard as befits a democracy.
In the meantime, work goes on for Imtiaz, notably the fight to uphold the High Court’s decision to keep Raja Petra from being sent back to detention without trial. The Home Ministry is seeking a judicial review of the High Court’s decision last November to free the popular blogger from a two-year detention in Kamunting.
The matter is now in the hands of the Federal Court, the highest court in the country.
Imtiaz noted the High Court had made a “good decision” in that it limits a minister’s arbitrary power to detain anyone without trial.
In addition, he is presently occupied with campaigning for the student’s right to express himself, challenging recent amendments under the University and University Colleges Act, recently tightened in Parliament to restrict any student from participating in activities remotely critical of the ruling government.
He is also working together with several non-profit organisations to push another review of the ISA, seeking to repeal the Act and work on a better replacement law.
Imtiaz,who is also the president of the National Human Rights Society (Hakam), was selected from a distinctive group which included Egyptian Gamal Eid who set up a legal clinic to protect journalists, bloggers and intellectuals; Harrison Nkomo, a lawyer from Zimbabwe who also struggles to fight for the rights of reporters and human rights campaigners in the face of great personal risk from a regime used to crushing resistance; and Harry Roque, a professor of law at the University of the Philippines College of Law who had challenged the husband of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo for his attacks against the media and won a class action suit for reporters.
Imtiaz’s personal struggle in the fight for freedom of expression, especially religious freedom, includes his suggestion to set up a National Inter Faith Council; his fight and success in securing freedom last November for vocal anti-government critic Raja Petra Kamaruddin from detention without trial under the Internal Security Act (ISA), and Lina Joy who was born a Muslim but sought to convert out of Islam into Christianity.
The website also noted the widespread circulation of a poster in 2006 calling Imtiaz a “traitor to Islam” and clamouring for his death sentence in multiracial, multicultural modern Malaysia.
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Malik Imtiaz receives international award for his fight against injustice in Malaysia