OPEN LETTER to: the Prime Minister of Malaysia, the Chief Justice of Malaysia, Chief Minister of Pahang State Government, The Human Rights Commission (SUHAKAM), the Pahang Foundation, the Head of the Delegation of the European Union, the Malaysian Bar and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR)
19 March 2020
We condemn attempts to discredit and criminalize Malaysian human rights lawyer Charles Hector
Legal Action for Women (LAW) and undersigned organizations condemn attempts to discredit and criminalize Malaysian human rights lawyer Charles Hector. Mr. Hector is representing eight villagers in Jerantut who are protesting intended logging in the nearby forest on which they depend for clean water.
We urge the Malaysian authorities to take immediate action to stop a spurious application by logging contractors for leave to begin contempt of court proceedings against Mr. Hector. The application is aimed at precluding a fair trial. It is based on a letter Mr. Hector sent on behalf of his clients seeking clarifications in preparation for full trial. The contractors claim that that this letter breached a temporary/interim injunction court order. The Malaysian Bar recently called for new legislation to define contempt of court and what sentences it would carry. Sentences now are entirely arbitrary and can include high fines, prison sentence and even the revocation of Charles Hector’s practicing lawyer certificate. The hearing is on 25 March 2021 at Kuantan High Court in Pahang, Malaysia.
Charles Hector is a highly respected human rights lawyer who has defended freedom of assembly, the rights of women, Indigenous people, migrants and refugees, workers, trade unionists, urban settlers, as well as land rights and administration of justice. He is a former member of the Bar Council, and has also been instrumental in developing the Malaysian Bar Legal Aid Dock-Brief programme to ensure that all defendants who do not have a lawyer receive free legal advice and legal representation.
The charges brought against Mr. Hector may aim to stop him from representing victims of possible collusion between regional state authorities and corporations, such as these Jerantut villagers.
On the basis of Articles 1, 5 and 12.2 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, adopted by the General Assembly of the UN in 1998, we demand an end to the harassment of Mr. Hector and the eight villagers who are defending human and environmental rights and exposing rights violations. Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, adopted by a United Nations Congress, also states, amongst other things, that lawyers must never be barred from being ‘. . . able to perform all of their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference; . . . (c) shall not suffer, or be threatened with, prosecution or administrative, economic or other sanctions for any action taken in accordance with recognized professional duties, standards and ethics.’ (Article 16)
The outcome of this case is being watched internationally, especially given the climate emergency and the targeting of human rights defenders and their lawyers. We call for the immediate discontinuation of this contempt proceedings against the lawyer and his eight community human rights defender clients.
SIGNED BY: Nina López, Legal Action for Women, UK
The contempt of court application has been initiated by two logging contractors, Beijing Million Sdn Bhd and Rosah Timber & Trading Sdn Bhd, appointed by the General Manager of the Pahang Foundation, being the Logging License holder. The Pahang Foundation is a statutory body of the Pahang State government.
Since 2013, hundreds of villagers from Kampong Baharu and other villages in Jerantut, Pahang State, have been protesting logging in the Permanent Forest Reserve in Jerantut. The part intended to be logged is also a water catchment area. The impact of deforestation on water catchment areas is well documented.
Regardless of this classification, the Forestry Department issued a logging license in 2019 to the Pengurus Besar Yayasan Pahang (General Manager of the Pahang Foundation).
The villagers rely on the sources in this forest for clean water for drinking, cooking and personal needs. The water is a key to their livelihoods and food security which includes fish farming. Logging also threatens the critically endangered birds and animals of the forest; for example, the helmeted hornbill bird which is near extinction was sighted here. The villagers submitted petitions with hundreds of signatures to the Pahang State Chief Minister (Menteri Besar), relevant members of State Cabinet and also Federal Ministers. In response, the Chief Minister directed the relevant government departments to address the issues raised.
On 19 February 2020, an agent of the logging contractors unloaded heavy machinery in front of the home of one of the defendants. Villagers went to inquire about what was happening peacefully. Later, they discovered that a complaint had been made to the police accusing them of having disrupted and blocking the workers. When they went to the police station to assist investigations, they were arrested, finger-printed, photographed, had their DNA sample taken and statements taken before being released on surety.
The following day, 20 February, the Jerantut Forestry Officer, Mohd Zarin Bin Ramlan, issued a letter suspending the logging companies’ permission to build an access road into the forest. The main reason given was the “disturbances” caused by the villagers on 19 February. At that time, the police hadn’t even completed their investigations, and it is suspicious how the Forestry concluded that the allegations were true. The police now have concluded their investigations and found that the allegations against the villagers were false/baseless. It is highly likely that this 20 February letter of the Forestry Officer was the primary reason why the Court granted the temporary injunction order pending completion of full trial.
In the process of trial preparation, Charles Hector, as lawyer representing the eight villagers, wrote to Mohd Zarin Bin Ramlan individually, not in his official capacity as Jerantut Forest Officer, seeking clarification of this 20 February letter. How this private letter even came into possession of the logging contractors still remains a mystery. Hector’s letter to Mohd Zarin is now the basis of this contempt of court action initiated by the logging contractors against the eight villagers and Charles Hector, their lawyer.
The loggers claim that Mr Hector’s clarification letter was in violation of the interlocutory injunction orders, in particular the order that prohibits the Defendants, ‘their agents, representatives, servants and/or any party connected with them’ from ‘1.4 Interfering with department or approval given to the Plaintiffs on 15 September 2019 by the District Forest Office ….1.5 Cause nuisance to the work of the Plaintiffs in any manner whatsoever including physically, online or by communication with the authorities…’  The said order is vague.
It is unfathomable for an allegation of contempt to be based on a letter from legal counsel, acting on behalf of his clients, seeking clarification from the author of a disputed document.In preparation for trial, lawyers must reasonably seek clarification, interview potential witnesses, obtain documents and evidence. The need to do this is even greater in civil procedures that require the pre-filing of documents and the provision of witness lists and statements before trial proper even starts.
It is alarming that the court is hearing a complaint possibly aimed at manipulating the legal process to attack and discredit a dedicated human rights lawyer and silence the genuine concerns of the community. The right to counsel of one’s choice and the right to a fair trial must be protected. Human rights lawyers like Charles Hector play a vital role in ensuring access to justice and protecting the public interest.