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Cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhauqe, better known as Zunar, poses in prison clothes with plastic handcuffs at a February 2, 2015, event launching a book in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia. (AP)

Malaysian authorities repeatedly arrest, harass award-winning cartoonist Zunar

December 19, 2016 11:54 AM ET

Bangkok, December 19, 2016--Malaysian authorities should drop all criminal charges against editorial cartoonist Zulikiflee Anwar Ulhaque, better known as Zunar, and stop harassing him, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. Police arrested Zunar on December 17, the cartoonist said in a statement, the latest incident in authorities' relentless campaign of judicial and police harassment of the journalist.

Police in uniform and civilian clothes arrested Zunar and two of his personal assistants at a public event in Kuala Lumpur organized to promote books of his work, press reports said. The cartoonist was detained and interrogated for nearly six hours at the Dang Wangi district police headquarters before being released on bail around midnight, according to Zunar's statement.

Authorities also confiscated more than 1,000 copies of his books as part of an investigation into potential charges of "undermining parliamentary democracy," which carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison under section 124(c) of Malayisa's penal code, according to media reports. This was the second time in a month that police had detained and threatened the cartoonist, whom CPJ honored with its International Press Freedom Award in 2015. Police on November 26 arrested and questioned Zunar, a day after government supporters physically assaulted him and vandalized an exhibition of his cartoons at a literary festival in the northern Malaysian state of Penang. Authorities are investigating him for sedition in connection with the exhibition for publicly insulting Prime Minister Najib Razak, CPJ reported at the time.

"Prime Minister Najib Razak's government should stop treating editorial criticism as criminal speech and allow journalists to do their jobs without fear of reprisal," said Shawn Crispin, CPJ's senior Southeast Asia representative. ""It is a bitter irony that Malaysian authorities would invoke a law on undermining democracy in order to persecute a cartoonist exercising his right to freedom of expression."

Zunar told CPJ by email that authorities initially refused to inform him on what charges he was being arrested. He said that interrogators asked him to explain the meaning of various of his cartoons and to indicate specifically who is lampooned in several of his drawings. Zunar said he declined to answer any of the questions, as allowed under Malaysian law.

Zunar faces nine charges of sedition for remarks he made on Twitter criticizing a court's decision to jail the country's main opposition leader last year. The tweets included an embedded cartoon that depicted Najib acting as a judge in that case. In other remarks on Twitter he referred to judges as "lackeys" of Najib's ruling party.

If convicted on all the charges, Zunar faces a maximum sentence of 43 years in prison under the Sedition Act. Zunar filed a suit challenging the constitutionality of the law that will begin hearings on January 24, 2017, according to a public statement Zunar released in November. His sedition case for the tweets will be heard after that process is complete, the statement said. The 10th possible sedition charge over the literary festival incident is still under investigation.

Authorities imposed a travel ban against Zunar in October that bars him from leaving the country before a verdict in his sedition trial, according to news reports. Zunar had frequently traveled to exhibit his work, to speak at conferences on freedom of expression, and to receive awards for his editorial courage. On December 7, Zunar filed a legal challenge to the ban, claiming in his petition to the court that the government abused its power, according to a public statement he sent to journalists and rights advocates, including CPJ.

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