Police in the Malaysian state of Penang on Saturday arrested satirical cartoonist Zunar for investigation under the country’s Sedition Act and confiscated an exhibit of his artwork.
The cartoonist, a BenarNews contributor, is already facing a travel ban imposed in June and nine sedition charges for allegedly insulting the judiciary in tweets made regarding former opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim's conviction in a sodomy case in February 2015.
“I can confirm Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque – @Cartoonist Zunar, 54 – [has] been arrested at the North East district police headquarters,” Assistant Commissioner Mior Faridalatrash Wahid told reporters in a WhatsApp message.
He added that the arrest was carried out under Section 4(1)(c) of the Sedition Act 1948 and for breaching the peace under Section 504 of the Penal Code with an exhibit opened the day before.
In a statement Zunar said he was being held at police district headquarters in Penang’s capital, George Town, and that police had confiscated “all my public exhibition artwork. Remand order will only be known tomorrow.”
Group storms exhibit
On Friday, a three-day exhibit of Zunar’s artwork was abruptly cancelled for security reasons, police said, three hours after Penang Chief Minister and opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP) Secretary-General Lim Guan Eng launched the event.
A group of some 30 people led by Penang state’s UMNO Youth chief Rafizal Abdul Rahim stormed the venue at Komtar – a skyscraper that also houses a shopping mall and state government headquarters – at about 2.45 p.m. and demanded Zunar remove his drawings.
The United Malays National Organization (UMNO) of Prime Minister Najib Razak is part of the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition that has been in power since 1957.
Malaysian media outlet MalaysiaKini reported that punches were thrown at Zunar and some members of the group grabbed his collar during the commotion.
UMNO Youth division chief Mohd Norhiesam Ismail subsequently lodged a police report, accusing Zunar of "disturbing the peace of Malaysians" through his cartoons.
Zunar’s lawyer R.S.N. Rayer said Zunar would be taken to George Town Magistrate's Court on Sunday where police can apply to hold him for questioning without charges for up to 14 days.
"He is alright. He is in high spirits," he told BenarNews.
Zunar had been summoned to the police station for investigation over Friday’s incident and upon arrival he was arrested, Rayer said.
The police later took Zunar back to the exhibit venue, where they seized his artwork, he said.
Zunar had held a similar exhibit in Petaling Jaya, Selangor from Sept. 3 to 10 without incident.
The subjects, Zunar said, included the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) financial scandal, the jailing of Anwar, the Goods and Services Tax (GST), corruption, the Sedition Act, as well as Najib and his wife, Rosmah Mansor.
Najib has denied allegations of wrongdoing over nearly U.S. $700 million in 1MDB-linked money deposited into his bank accounts in 2013.
An opposition lawmaker who was with Zunar at the police station expressed concern that civil society voices were being suppressed in Malaysia.
“It is like we are going with mob rule. It is as if they feel so threatened by a man with a pen," Sim Tze Tzin, a People's Justice Party (PKR) MP from Penang’s Bayan Baru, told BenarNews.
Sim said it was an irony that the cartoonist was being investigated for alleged sedition and disturbing the peace after receiving the 2016 Cartooning for Peace Award from former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan in Geneva in May.
A month later, Inspector General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar ordered a travel ban on Zunar, according to an immigration official. Zunar learned of it when he tried to board a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore on Oct. 17.
“This is like what happened to Maria (Chin Abdullah)," Sim said, referring to the Bersih chairwoman who is being detained under Malaysia’s Security Offences (Special Measures) Act, or SOSMA, a law introduced in 2012 to fight security and extremist threats.
Chin was arrested on November 18, a day before the pro-democracy Bersih 5 rally that brought tens of thousands to the streets of Kuala Lumpur to call for upholding parliamentary democracy and criticize the corruption allegations surrounding Najib.
Malaysia’s Inspector General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar on Wednesday denied allegations that Chin had been mistreated in solitary confinement, but confirmed that she was arrested because documents found during a raid of her office "threaten national security."
Zunar has been jailed twice before, for two days in September 2010 and for three days in February 2015. Five of his books have been banned and thousands confiscated from his office in Kuala Lumpur, he told BenarNews last year.
Zunar discusses one of his cartoons at an outdoor exhibit of his work in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, Sept. 3, 2016. [Haireez Azeem Azizi/Benar News].