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FORUM-ASIA demands charges to be dropped against 15 human rights defenders in Sarawak

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FORUM-ASIA condemns the arrests of 15
human rights defenders in Sarawak, Malaysia, on 16 September 2009. Their
arrests were a clear form of intimidation and aimed to silence their voices and
the voices of their communities who are questioning the construction of large
dams in the area.

The Asian
Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) condemns the arrests of 15
human rights defenders in Sarawak on 16 September 2009. FORUM-ASIA believes their
arrests were a clear form of intimidation and aimed to silence their voices and
the voices of their communities who are questioning the construction of large
dams in the area. They were subsequently released
before 9 o'clock in the evening of the same day, but are still required to
appear in court to face charges on 29 September 2009.

those arrested and subsequently released were Mark Bujang (BRIMAS), Raymond
Abin (BRIMAS) and Hellan Empaing (WADESA), all leaders of the Jaringan Orang
Asal Se Malaysia (Indigenous Peoples Network of Malaysia) as well as
representatives from the Kayan, Kenyah and Penan communities of Sarawak.  They were arrested on 17 September 2009, at
around 2 o'clock in the afternoon, when they were about to submit a memorandum
about the Baram and Murum dams to the Sarawak state government leaders at Wisma
Bapa Malaysia.

The memorandum
opposes the construction of the two dams and calls on the government to immediately
cease their construction. It is reported that the dams will submerge 30
villages and longhouses in the Baram valley and an area of 38,900 hectares.
More than 20,000 Penans, Kayans and Kenyahs are expected to be moved out of the
dam site.

For several
years, the Sarawak government's design for economic development has always
involved large tracts of land being used for commercial purposes or as in this
case, for building infrastructures intended to support the government's
economic strategy. More often than not, these lands are subject to native customary
rights (NCR), which is recognized under the Sarawak Land Code. The communities
represented by the arrested human rights defenders are asserting their native
customary rights and are calling for "free, fair, prior, and informed consent"
before NCR land is requested for commercial development.

FORUM-ASIA believes that the
arrest and detention of the 15 human rights defenders clearly demonstrates the unwillingness of the State Government of
Sarawak to ensure the full and effective participation of indigenous peoples in
projects that affect them. FORUM-ASIA therefore strongly demands the State
Government of Sarawak to engage in a proper consultative process with the
affected communities and to respect the native customary rights of these
communities over their land.

FORUM-ASIA also calls on the
State Government of Sarawak to respect these human rights defenders' right to
freedom of peaceful assembly, which is enshrined in Article 20 of the Universal
Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR). This should be enjoyed equally by everyone,
including members of minority and indigenous groups. Any restrictions imposed
on this right must have formal basis in law and the law itself must be
compatible with international human rights law.

FORUM-ASIA demands that all charges against these 15 human rights defenders be
dropped immediately. According to Bernice See of the Ethnic Minorities
Programme of FORUM-ASIA, "These human rights defenders only wanted to hold a
peaceful assembly to submit their grievance to the State Government of Sarawak.
Their arrest and the charges subsequently filed against them could only be
viewed as mere harassment by the government. The acts of the State Government
of Sarawak were clearly intended to silence these human rights defenders and
the communities they represent".

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