Malaysia: Arbitrary detention of cartoonist Zunar an outrageous attack against freedom of expression

Press release

Paris, Kuala Lumpur, 13 February 2015: Malaysian authorities must immediately release prominent political cartoonist Zunar and put an end to all acts of harassment and intimidation against him, FIDH and its member organization SUARAM said today.

On the evening of 10 February, police arrested Zulkifli Anwar Ulhaque, better known as Zunar, at his home in Kuala Lumpur on charges of sedition for posting a tweet that suggested the Federal Court’s decision to uphold the conviction of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim earlier in the day was politically motivated. “Those in the black robes were proud when passing sentence. The rewards from their political masters must be lucrative,” Zunar said in his tweet.

Zunar, 52, was taken into custody at Bukit Aman police station in Kuala Lumpur. On 11 February, the Kuala Lumpur Magistrate Court issued a three-day remand order that allowed police to detain Zunar at Dang Wangi police station until 14 February.

“The arbitrary detention of Zunar is an outrageous attack against freedom of expression and the latest attempt to silence an independent and courageous voice,” FIDH President Karim Lahidji said. “It is hypocritical of Prime Minister Najib Razak to condemn the murderous attack against the cartoonists of the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo while his administration relentlessly persecutes Zunar,” he added.

This is Zunar’s third investigation under the Sedition Law in relation to his cartoons. On 24 September 2010, police arrested Zunar and charged him for sedition a few hours before the launch of his book of political cartoons “Cartoon-O-Phobia”. He was released after two days. On 20 November 2014, police investigated Zunar on various charges, including sedition, in relation to his cartoon books “Pirates of the Carry-BN” and “Conspiracy to Imprison Anwar.”

In addition, on 28 January 2015, while Zunar was on a speaking tour in the UK, police raided his office in Kuala Lumpur and confiscated 155 copies of “Pirates of the Carry-BN” and “Conspiracy to Imprison Anwar.”

FIDH and SUARAM reiterate their calls for the Malaysian government to stop using the 1948 Sedition Law to silence government critics and urge the immediate repeal of this draconian legislation.

Along with Zunar, two opposition MPs and a human rights lawyer are among the latest victims of the government’s crackdown on dissent. On 10 February 2015, Inspector General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar ordered an investigation against Democratic Action Party (DAP) MP Nga Kor Ming and People’s Justice Party MP Rafizi Ramli after the two echoed Zunar’s criticism of the Federal Court’s verdict in the Anwar trial on Twitter.

On 12 January 2015, police in Kuala Lumpur arrested Lawyers for Liberty Executive Director Eric Paulsen for posting a tweet that accused the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia of promoting religious extremism during Friday sermons. Paulsen was released on bail after a two-day detention at Dang Wangi police station.

“Malaysia’s achievements cannot be measured by its UN Security Council membership and ASEAN chairmanship. The government must immediately undertake necessary legislative reforms and repeal the country’s numerous repressive laws before Malaysia’s international image is damaged beyond repair,” said SUARAM Acting Executive Director Arumugam K.

The 1948 Sedition Law criminalizes any speech or publication that has a “seditious tendency.” The same law defines “seditious tendency” as one that: 1) causes “hatred or contempt” or disaffection against the government; 2) incites the “alteration, otherwise than by lawful means, of any matter as by law established;” 3) promotes “feelings of ill will and hostility between different races.”

On 11 July 2012, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak stated that the Sedition Law would be repealed as part of planned legislative reforms. On 2 July 2013, Najib maintained that the Sedition Law would be repealed and replaced by a new National Harmony Act. Najib reiterated his commitment for repeal on 5 September 2014. However, on 27 November 2014, Najib backtracked on his promise and announced that the Sedition Law would not only be retained but also strengthened “to protect the sanctity of Islam and other religions.”

Since May 2013, at least 72 people, including MPs, activists, lawyers, academics, and a journalist have been investigated, charged, or arrested under the Sedition Law. Four people have been found guilty of sedition. Three of them, lawyer Uthayakuma and student activists Safwan Anang and Adam Adli were sentenced to prison terms. The late Karpal Singh, prominent lawyer and former DAP Chairman, was sentenced to a 4,000-ringgit (US$1,220) fine.

FIDH is all the more concerned since Zunar volunteered to contribute to the FIDH 2013 Comic Strip Report. He drew a cartoon illustrating the persecution of ethnic minorities in Burma.

Press contacts:
Andrea Giorgetta (English) - Tel: +66 88 6117722 (Bangkok)
Arthur Manet (French, English, Spanish) - Tel: +33 6 72 28 42 94 (Paris)
Audrey Couprie (French, English, Spanish) - Tel: +33 6 48 05 91 57 (Paris)

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