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Malaysian indigenous tribe wins land rights case

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Members of an indigenous tribe in Malaysia have won 6.5 million ringgit ($1.9 million) in a landmark settlement with highway authorities for forcibly taking away their ancestral land for development, a rights activist said Wednesday.

The settlement ended a 15-year legal battle for the Temuan tribe and could bolster more than 200 other land rights cases pending in court, said Colin Nicholas, a coordinator of the Center for Orang Asli Concerns.

The Temuan are among 18 ethnic tribes collectively known as Orang Asli, which means "Original People" in the Malay language. Many of the tribespeople live in or near the rain forest in peninsular Malaysia, where they mainly hunt and grow crops.

Nicholas said the settlement was recorded in the Federal Court, the country's top court, after the Malaysian Highway Authority, the federal government and the contractor withdrew their appeal and agreed to compensate some 26 Temuan families.

"It is a landmark settlement that recognized that the Orang Asli have native title rights to their traditional land," he said.

Land rights are a key concern for the country's indigenous people, many of whom have been pushed off land without compensation by state governments to make way for development.

The highway authorities and government officials couldn't immediately be reached for comment.

The Temuan families filed a suit after authorities forcibly acquired 38 acres (15.6 hectares) of land in central Selangor state in 1995 to construct a highway to the Kuala Lumpur International Airport without paying any compensation.

The High Court ruled in 2002 that the Orang Asli enjoyed native title rights and should be compensated. The verdict was upheld by the Court of Appeal in 2005 but the defendants appealed to the Federal Court.

Nicholas said the deadlock was broken in April last year after the opposition-led Selangor government pulled out from challenging the suit in line with its promise to recognize the Orang Asli land rights.

Selangor government's withdrawal placed the other defendants in a difficult position as their argument was based on the fact that the state owned the land, he said.

Activists estimate the Orang Asli comprise 140,000 people who are among Malaysia's poorest citizens.

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