The trial of Malaysian cartoonist Zunar was set to begin yesterday, but has once again been delayed while a separate challenge to the country’s Sedition Act is pending. A new start date has been set for March 9. If convicted on the nine counts of sedition for statements he made on Twitter, Zunar could face up to 43 years in prison.
The sedition charges stem from statements that Zunar made on Twitter in February following the sentencing of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on a trumped-up sodomy charge. The cartoonist hinted that the judiciary in that trial had been subject to political pressure or bribery, observing that “the lackeys in black robes are proud of their sentences. The reward from political masters must be plenty.” He then exchanged Twitter barbs — and a cartoon — with Inspector-General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar as officers were en route to arrest him.
A previous challenge from law professor Azmi Sharom, also charged with sedition, held up the start of Zunar’s own trial for several months. Azmi’s legal team had argued that the Sedition Act should be invalid since it predates the Malaysian constitution and independence from British colonial rule. Last month, however, a five-judge Federal Court panel ruled that the law would remain in force. Dissenters like Zunar and Azmi say that Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government has selectively used the Sedition Act as a tool to silence opposition. Zunar’s lawyer Latheefa Koya, who also represents the other two challengers, Eric Paulsen and N. Surendran, is asking for a court to review the decision in the Azmi case as well.
Zunar’s trial was originally set to begin on May 20, 2014, but has now been delayed four times while courts await decisions on the Sedition Act challenges. Given this history, we wouldn’t be terribly surprised if March 9 also comes and goes with no judicial action, but we’ll be watching nonetheless! In the meantime, please take a moment to sign the International Federation of Journalists’ petition calling on the government to drop the charges. Cartoonists Rights Network International also provides a convenient form letter to send to Malaysian embassies.
Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.