Malaysian satirical cartoonist Zunar traveled to Switzerland this week to pick up a prestigious international award for his work, just two months before he is to stand trial back home on nine counts of sedition.
Zunar, whose real name is Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, on Tuesday received the 2016 International Editorial Cartoons Prize from former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Zunar shares the prize with Kenyan cartoonist Gado. The award was presented to the co-recipients at the Palais Eynard in Geneva on World Press Freedom Day.
“Malaysians are my strength. Without their support I would not be able to survive until now,” Zunar told BenarNews from Geneva on Wednesday.
Zunar is known for his biting cartoons that lampoon the Malaysia’s ruling Barisan Nasional coalition and Prime Minister Najib Razak, and that highlight themes such as corruption.
“The ‘2016 International Editorial Cartoons Prize’ gives new strength for me to continue the fight against the 60-year-old corrupt and repressive Malaysian regime. Human rights and freedom of expression in Malaysia are in dire straits,” Zunar, a BenarNews contributor, said in a separate statement.
“The Sedition Act and other draconian laws are used widely to silence critics. All institutions are being used as political tools by the regime in order to maintain power,” he added.
Zunar is scheduled to stand trial on July 14, and he could be sentenced to more than four decades in prison if convicted on all nine counts under Malaysia’s Sedition Act.
He has been jailed twice – for two days in September 2010 and for three days in February 2015. Five of his books have been banned and his office in Kuala Lumpur has been raided. Printers have been warned to not publish any of his cartoon books.
The latest charges against him stem from tweets he had sent that criticized the 2014 jailing of Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on sodomy charges.
The Sedition Act, enacted by British colonial rulers in 1948 to combat communists, was amended by Malaysia following race riots in 1969. The law defines “sedition” broadly and places many limits on free speech, particularly over sensitive political issues, according to a report by Center of Independent Journalism Malaysia.
In March 2015 alone, some 114 people in Malaysia were arrested under the act for allegedly criticizing the government.
The prize that Zunar received along with Gado was bestowed upon them by the Cartooning for Peace Swiss Foundation and the City of Geneva.
“Through their commitment toward open and transparent societies, Gado and Zunar, who have received threats in their countries of origin and can no longer practice their profession, confront us with our responsibility to preserve freedom of expression and act in order to support the combat of those who cannot express themselves through their art,” Annan said during Tuesday’s ceremony.