A Malaysian court dropped nine sedition charges on Monday against a cartoonist who used satirical drawings to skewer the nation’s political elite, including then-Prime Minister Najib Razak and his wife, after prosecutors said they would no longer pursue the cases.
Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, a BenarNews contributor better known as Zunar, repeatedly courted trouble with cartoons that, among other topics, mocked the alleged use of funds from the scandal-scarred 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).
“Finally, no more sedition for me, the burden is lifted,” Zunar told BenarNews. “But the fight is not over yet.”
He expressed hope that Prime Minister Mahathir’s government would abolish the Sedition Act, one of several laws used to restrict criticism in the Muslim-majority country.
“The government has to abolish this law to show the commitment to freedom of expression,” he said.
Zunar, 56, held the record number for a single person to face sedition charges in Malaysia, legal analysts said in 2015 when authorities filed charges against him for allegedly insulting the judiciary in his tweets. Those tweets were in reaction to a court order to jail then-opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.
He pleaded not guilty to the charges, which could have sent him to prison for up to 43 years if convicted.
Sessions Court Judge Zamri Bakar acquitted Zunar during a hearing in Kuala Lumpur after the prosecution team said the attorney-general’s office had decided to withdraw the charges against the cartoonist, lawyers said.
Zunar was arrested at his home in Kuala Lumpur in February 2016 and detained for three days without charges after he had posted nine political cartoons online. During questioning, police told him he was under investigation for his illustrations allegedly defaming Najib.
Under Najib, Malaysia was accused of using draconian laws to retaliate against government critics. Several laws have been used to restrict criticism, including the British colonial-era sedition law used against Zunar and the “fake news” law, which was passed in April, just a month before Najib lost power when the opposition bloc triumphed in the May 9 election.
After the opposition smashed the ruling Barisan National coalition’s six-decade monopoly on political power, Mahathir vowed to repeal repressive laws and investigate the 1MDB scandal.
More than 114 people, including journalists, opposition leaders and activists, were detained under the Sedition Act during March 2015 alone, according to official reports compiled by BenarNews.
In April 2015, Malaysia also passed the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which Najib’s government justified as a necessary move to counter terrorism. Opposition leader feared the legislation could be used against Najib’s critics.
Since losing power, Najib has been charged with three counts of criminal breach of trust and one count of abuse of power related to allegations that he deposited millions of dollars of public money into his personal bank account. He pleaded not guilty and is free on bail.
Najib’s trial date has been set for Feb. 18, 2019, and the new government barred him and his wife, Roshmah, from leaving the country.
‘You can say it is trading places’
Zunar learned that he was banned from traveling abroad as he was about to leave for Singapore to attend a forum in October 2016.
About a month after the May election catapulted Mahathir back to power, Zunar told the New York Times that he logged into a government database and discovered he could again leave the country.
“I was surprised to see this happen so quickly,” Zunar said. “At the same time, the ex-prime minister and his wife are on a travel ban now. So, funny, you can say it’s trading places.”
Responding to the government dropping charges against Zunar, Amnesty International said the Mahathir government “must take this opportunity to usher in a new era for human rights by fully restoring freedom of expression and abolishing the 1948 Sedition Act, an archaic piece of legislation which has been repeatedly used to target dissenting voices.
“The authorities must also drop any other charges under the act and, pending its repeal, ensure that no one else is arrested, investigated, charged or imprisoned under its draconian provisions.”