The Federal Court, the highest court of Malaysia, unanimously dismissed an appeal filed by Raub Australian Gold Mining (RAGM), a gold mining company that had sued activist Sherly Hue for defamation. Hue is part of the resistance against the company´s operations in Bukit Koman, Pahang State.
The Court´s decision issued in mid-February, which puts an end to the suit that started in 2013, agreed with the previous decisions of the High Court and the Court of Appeal of Malaysia. Sherly is the Vice Chairperson of Bukit Koman Ban Cyanide Committee, created in 2006 to resist the factory that eventually began operations in 2009.
The activist had been accused by the company for allegedly defaming them in two press statements where, according to the company, Sherly had linked the operations of the factory with health effects on the local population. The Federal Court ruled that in one of the cases, the words of the defendant to the press were not defamatory and in the second case the company could not even prove that Sherly had made that statement in the first place. This is what lawyer Jessica Binwani, one of the legal advisers of the case, said to Real World Radio in an interview conducted by our colleague Theiva Lingam, of Friends of the Earth Asia Pacific.
The organization Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) – Friends of the Earth Malaysia supported the defendant in this defamation suit and the Ban Cyanide in Gold Mining Action Committee, and welcomed the Court´s decision. SAM also highlighted some parts of the arguments of the Court of Appeal, supported by the Federal Court, where it stated that the groups of activists “have contributed much to the general well-being of the society at large” and highlighted the concepts of transparency, accountability and freedom of speech.
Also in the interview with Real World Radio conducted by Theiva, Sherly said she welcomed the Court´s decision because “people who have been oppressed for over a decade have finally succeeded in defending our rights to tell the truth”. She also thanked SAM, Friends of the Earth International, and other networks for supporting them throughout the case that lasted six years.
Meanwhile, Binwani highlighted that one of the most important legal principles that came out of this case is freedom of speech, and that the Federal Court emphasized the right of people to speak up in the public interest on matters that involve public health and the environment. This case “is a huge step forward for the laws of defamation and for the freedom of speech in this country”, she said, and added that it sets an important precedent for the cases of harassment and persecution against activists.
Legal action as a resort to silence organized resistance
Company Raub Australian Gold Mining Malaysia, subsidiary of the British Peninsular Gold Limited, started in 2008 to build a gold leaching plant with cyanide use to obtain gold in the Malaysian village of Bukit Koman, Raub District, Pahang State (two hours away by land from the capital Kuala Lumpur). In February 2009, the corporation started its operations and from that moment on, the population started to suffer skin allergies, eye and breathing problems, among other conditions.
In a solidarity mission held by Friends of the Earth International in Bukit Koman in October 2014, where Real World Radio was present, Sherly herself and human rights defender Tan Hui Chin, member of the Kuala Lumpur Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall, denounced that during the first and second month of mining operations, there were over 300 claims filed by inhabitants with health issues.
In 2010, a University was commissioned to do a health study. But, strangely, the results were never known. It was then that the Ban Cyanide Committee and support groups carried out their own study in 2012, with 383 volunteers from Bukit Koman. The results were ready in June and concluded that 50 per cent of the people had respiratory issues, and 40 per cent suffered eye problems and allergies.
They then decided to organize a press conference in Kuala Lumpur to announce the findings and call the attention of the authorities. The goal was at least to study the situation in detail. They wanted to know if the health effects were somehow caused by the work at the plant. After the participation of Sherly and other activists in this activity, RAGM filed defamation lawsuits against several activists. Some of them apologized to avoid the legal cases.
But Sherly preferred not to do so, because she was certain that she hadn´t done anything wrong and that the community demands were fair. She said back then to Real World Radio: “We are fighting for our rights. It´s everyone´s right to live in a safe place. I don’t see we have done anything wrong”. And stated that “the company brought to court ordinary women like us just because we speak our truth”. And time proved her right.
Ideas and conviction: the defense of rights as a banner
RAGM closed a while back their factory in Bukit Koman. However, the people who oppose them still have a lot to do. Now, the Ban Cyanide in Gold Mining Action Committee and SAM, among other organizations, demand that the government orders the company to clean up the operation zone and to rehabilitate the old mine. Mining was fundamental for local economy until the 1960-1970s.
In addition, “the Government should ban the use of cyanide in gold mining as it is a leader chemical compound that is detrimental to public health and the environment”, said Sherly. Also, “the government should review all mining licenses that allow the use of cyanide in the gold extraction process”, she demanded.
Meanwhile, Binwani, highlighted that what was impressive in this case was Sherly´s determination to keep the struggle. “She refused to give up. She led the way to keep the fight going and it’s amazing the spirit, the fortitude, the courage of the people, to the point that now the factory has shut down and they are still fighting for the clean-up of the factory because it still affects them as villagers”.
Watch below a video by Friends of the Earth International produced after the solidarity mission in Bukit Koman in 2014