Canadian journalist Murray Hiebert was freed from prison on Monday after serving a one-month term that prompted international criticism of Malaysia’s civil liberties.
Hiebert, Malaysia bureau chief for the Far Eastern Economic Review magazine, left the minimum security prison in Seremban town, about 50 miles south of the capital, at 7:22 a.m. (2322 GMT Sunday).
Hiebert, who grew a beard during his jail term, made no statement to reporters. Wearing a blue button-down shirt and spectacles, he spoke into a mobile phone before climbing into his lawyer’s car to be driven to the capital Kuala Lumpur.
The Canadian was 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.
Canada, the United States and human rights groups said Hiebert’s jail term flew in the face of freedom of the press, but Malaysia, whose record on civil liberties has come under mounting criticism, said the journalist had broken the law.
Hiebert was convicted of contempt over an article published in January 1997 that the plaintiff, the wife of a Court of Appeal judge, said amounted to an attack on the judiciary.
He was initially sentenced to three months in jail. Authorities kept his passport during the legal proceedings which lasted more than two years.
The Court of Appeal last month upheld the conviction but cut the sentence in half to six weeks.
Hiebert refused bail pending another appeal and elected instead to serve the prison term as the appeals court had refused to return his passport and he had no assurance that the legal process would not drag on, preventing him from leaving the country.
Hiebert has since lodged an appeal with the nation’s highest court, the Federal Court, which has scheduled a hearing on the matter for Oct. 18.
The Canadian journalist was expected to leave Malaysia later this week to rejoin his family, which moved toin Washington earlier this year.
Last month Canada raised Hiebert’s case in a meeting of the 54-nation Commonwealth.
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said Western nations had made too much of Hiebert while ignoring rights abuses in their own countries.
The outspoken Mahathir said that during a trip to the United States in September he found Americans “obsessed” with Hiebert’s jailing, and accused the West of using double standards in its criticism of developing countries’ rights records.
The 73-year-old Mahathir, in power since 1981 and Asia’s longest serving elected leader, has been the target of stinging international criticism for sacking his former deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, last year.
Anwar is serving a six-year jail term for corruption and is standing trial on one count of sodomy.