01 March, 2011

Malaysia: Indigenous tribespeople allow to challenge the acquisition of their ancestral land

The Federal Court's decision to allow indigenous tribespeople from Borneo the right to challenge the acquisition of their ancestral land has been hailed as a historic test case.

Their legal battle for native title began 12 years ago after the Sarawak government requisitioned land for the controversial Bakun dam and a timber pulpmill.

"Since we know that there are a lot of native lands which had been acquired and cases relating to such acquisition are pending in the court which are likely to be raised, we therefore decided to grant leave," Chief Justice Zaki Azmi said.

The Federal Court said it will begin hearing the arguments on April 28. Two separate cases, dealing with each of the Borneo projects, are being heard in tandem.

Lawyer and human rights activist Baru Bian, one of the campaigners who have propelled the case to the apex of Malaysia's justice system, welcomed the court's decision as "an initial victory".

"The decision to allow leave is indeed historic," he told AFP at the court.

"This is the first time the power of the state government extinguishing native customary rights over land in Sarawak is challenged - whether it is valid and constitutional."

The test case has been brought by members of tribes including the Iban, Kayan, Kenyah and Ukit peoples, some of the many ethnic groups living on Borneo, which is split between Malaysia, Indonesia and the sultanate of Brunei.

Baru Bian said the outcome would have major implications for around 200 cases currently lodged with lower courts, where indigenous people are fighting against the state for allegedly grabbing their ancestral land...more

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