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Monday, October 11, 1999 Published at 06:16 GMT 07:16 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Jailed journalist walks free

Mahathir Mohamad was defiant over the Hiebert case

Canadian journalist Murray Hiebert has walked free from prison in Malaysia after serving a one-month term that provoked international criticism.

BBC's Frances Harrison "The case provoked a flurry of criticism around the world"
Mr Hiebert, 50, was jailed for contempt of court for a story he wrote about the growing number of defamation suits in Malaysia. He was told it amounted to an attack on the judiciary in Malaysia.

He was released from his six week sentence a fortnight early for good behaviour.

Mr Hiebert, the Kuala Lumpur bureau chief for the Far Eastern Economic Review, said "I am okay" as he was driven away from the prison compound.

[ image: Murray Hiebert: Due to take up a new job in the United States]
Murray Hiebert: Due to take up a new job in the United States
The article, ironically entitled "See You in Court", focused on a case of the wife of an appeal court judge who sued the international school in Kuala Lumpur for more than $2m for dropping her son from the school debating team.

Although the article was checked by two lawyers before publication, a judge said several inferences in the story had struck at the very core of administration of justice.

His case provoked an outcry at Malaysia's civil liberties from Canada, the United States and human rights groups. They said Mr Hiebert's jail term flew in the face of freedom of the press and declared him a political prisoner.

But Malaysia, whose record on civil liberties has come under mounting criticism, said the journalist had broken the law.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad dismissed concerns about Malaysian justice, saying journalists were obsessed with the issue only because Mr Hiebert was a westerner.

He became the first journalist to be sent to jail in Malaysia in the line of duty and the first in 50 years to be imprisoned for contempt of court in a Commonwealth country.

Grew beard

Mr Hiebert had been stripped of his passport for the duration of his two year legal battle.

Eventually he elected to serve the one-month jail term, despite the opportunity of an appeal. He said he had no assurance the legal process would not drag on, preventing him from leaving the country.

He has since lodged an appeal with Malaysia's highest court, the Federal Court, which will hear the matter on 18 October.

However, Mr Hiebert is due to fly soon to Washington to join his wife and two children and take up a new job there, his lawyer said.

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Far Eastern Economic Review - Chronology of Murray Hiebert case

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