Malaysia’s High Court yesterday rejected cartoonist Zunar’s challenge to the country’s Sedition Act, clearing the way for his long-delayed trial on nine counts of sedition. If convicted on all counts, he could face up to 43 years in prison. A lower court is expected to set a new date for his trial today.
The sedition charges stem from statements that Zunar made on Twitter last 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.
Zunar and his lawyers had challenged the Sedition Act, implemented during the British colonial era and before Malaysia had its own constitution, on the grounds that it “contradicted the constitution’s guarantee of free speech.” The High Court disagreed and said it had already addressed the question in rejecting a previous challenge by law professor Azmi Sharom, also charged with sedition. In February, however, Attorney General Mohamed Apandi Ali withdrew the sedition charge against Azmi, which had been pending since 2014. Zunar likely will appeal the High Court’s decision on his own challenge to the Court of Appeal.
Zunar’s trial was originally set to begin on May 20, 2015, but has now been delayed four times while courts await decisions on the Sedition Act challenges. While we continue to wait for action on his case, 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.