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Malaysian cartoonist faces sedition charges

Zunar with copies of previously banned cartoon collections. (AP/Lai Seng Sin)

Bangkok, September 27, 2010--The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the arrest of Malaysian cartoonist Zulkifli Awar Ulhaque, also known as Zunar, a contributor to the popular news site Malaysiakini and author of a new collection of political cartoons. 

Police raided Zunar's Kuala Lumpur office and arrested him under the Sedition Act on Friday, just before the scheduled release of his new book, "Cartoon-O-Phobia." He was released on bail on Saturday, according to local news reports.

Zunar told Agence France-Presse that authorities did not identify the cartoons they considered seditious. Sedition charges in Malaysia are often used to suppress press criticism and carry possible three-year jail terms for first-time offenders, according to CPJ research.    

Zunar's drawings often tackle sensitive issues, including the ongoing sodomy trial of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and the perceived influence of Prime Minister Najib Razak's wife over his decision-making. Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said the arrest was related to cartoons that touched on the legal system and religion, the state news agency Bernama reported. 

"We call on Malaysian authorities to stop harassing political cartoonist Zunar and to drop all charges against him," said Shawn W. Crispin, CPJ's senior Southeast Asia representative. "The arrest of a cartoonist is inconsistent with Prime Minister Najib's vow on taking office that he would uphold, not suppress, press freedom."

Most of the cartoons in Zunar's new book had already been published on Malaysiakini; the book is being printed by the news group's publishing arm, Kinibook. According to the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ), a Kuala Lumpur press freedom group, three of Zunar's previous volumes of cartoons were banned by the Home Ministry in June under the country's repressive Printing Presses and Publications Act. CPJ research shows successive Malaysian administrations have used the law to censor criticism of the government. 

Zunar's arrest comes amid a crackdown on satrical commentary. Earlier this month, Malaysian authorities filed a criminal "intent to hurt" charge against blogger Irwan Abdul Rahman for a posting a blog piece that poked fun at Malaysia's state-run power company Tenaga. 

Zunar's wife, Fazlinah Rosley, presided over the scheduled book launch on Friday amid a notable police presence, according to CIJ. In a speech, she related that Zunar had sent a text message while in custody saying, that "authorities could imprison his body, but not his mind." 

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