Updated at 8:47 a.m. ET on 2017-11-30
Malaysian police questioned a satirical cartoonist Wednesday over a caricature mocking the alleged use of public funds to help the country’s scandal-scarred sovereign wealth fund settle its debts, and a court upheld a government ban preventing him from traveling abroad.
Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, a BenarNews contributing illustrator known by his pen name Zunar, said police had also seized his cell phone when authorities investigated him about his illustration related to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) fund.
Zunar said he was questioned for about an hour at Bukit Aman, headquarters of the Malaysian Police in Kuala Lumpur. His lawyer, Farhanna Roslan, accompanied him during questioning.
“I refused to answer any questions raised by the investigating officer,” Zunar told BenarNews. “The investigation is a form of intimidation against me.”
On the same day, he said, a Kuala Lumpur High Court also upheld a travel ban against him. Zunar, who has been barred from leaving Malaysia since 2016, sought a judicial review from the Kuala Lumpur High Court but it dismissed his petition, he said, adding that he would file an appeal.
Zunar uploaded the cartoon on his Facebook page three months ago. It features five chickens drawn to look like broken piggy banks and labeled as government-linked companies and public funds.
He said the investigating officer explained he was being questioned under Section 233 of the Communication and Multimedia Act, which involves “improper use of network facilities that create obscene, indecent, false, menacing and offensive characters with intent to annoy abuse, threaten or harass another person.”
A person found guilty of violating that law could be fined 50,000 ringgit (about U.S. $12,200), punished by imprisonment not exceeding one year, or both.
Zunar said the investigator asked him how he had uploaded his illustration on Facebook and prodded him to describe the characters in the cartoon.
Zunar is known for skewering government officials, especially Prime Minister Najib Razak, in his drawings.
He filed a lawsuit in August this year against Malaysian government and police officials, claiming that his arrest and confiscation of books and T-shirts at a fundraising event in Kuala Lumpur last year were illegal.
Days before Zunar’s arrest at the Dec. 17 “Tea with Zunar,” the then Police Inspector-General Khalid Abu Bakar said the illustrator should refrain from drawing cartoons that insult people or inspire hatred toward the country’s leaders, according to the Sun Daily, a Malaysian newspaper.
Facing multiple charges
Zunar is also facing nine charges of sedition stemming from messages he posted on Twitter criticizing the country’s judiciary conviction of de facto opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim in a sodomy case in February 2015. If convicted on all charges, the cartoonist could be sentenced to up to 43 years in jail.
Malaysia’s Home Ministry banned 11 of Zunar’s books, including “Sapuman: Man of Steal” – a word play on “Superman, Man of Steel” – for allegedly breaching the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984. The book satirizes Najib’s alleged involvement with the 1MDB scandal.
The prime minister has denied the allegations against him. During a visit to Washington DC in September, he accused his political opponents of exaggerating the 1MDB problems and even of sabotaging it as part of a failed attempt to topple his government.
Najib, who founded 1MDB, has been implicated because nearly $700 million of money linked to 1MDB was deposited into his private banks accounts in 2013. He has denied any criminal wrong doing, saying this money was donated by the Saudi royal family and not used for his personal gain.
In April, a court awarded Zunar 18,000 ringgit (U.S. $4,060) in damages for his lawsuit against the government over its seizure of 66 copies of his books and artwork in September 2010.
But on Wednesday, Judge Azizah Nawawi ruled that the judicial review filed by Zunar seeking to overturn his travel ban had no merit.
“The issue posed did not arise from the substantive application and the application was without merit,” the judge said. Zunar was ordered to pay court costs of 5,000 (U.S. $1,200).
Zunar reacted to the decision with humor.
“I’m the only cartoonist in the world being banned from leaving the country,” he said.
An earlier version incorrectly spelled the last name of Zunar’s attorney. This update also corrects the title of former Police Inspector General Khalid Abu Bakar.