The latest round of the Malaysian government’s harassment against political cartoonist Zunar came to a head last week when he was charged with nine counts of sedition, which could carry a total sentence of up to 43 years in prison. His trial is set to begin on May 20, and the advocacy group Cartoonists Rights Network International is urging individuals who support him to make their feelings known via a form letter to Malaysian ambassadors and other government officials.
Zunar has been sparring with the ruling Barisan Nasional party for years, and most of his cartoon books are officially banned in Malaysia. The latest sedition charges, however, stem from statements that he made on Twitter in February following the sentencing of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on a trumped-up sodomy charge. Zunar 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.
Although Zunar initially faced only one sedition charge, last week it became nine charges to match the number of allegedly seditious tweets. He pointed out in a statement on his website that this not only increased his potential fine or prison sentence down the line, but also immediately raised his bail to 45,000 Malaysian ringgit (about $12,400). The court later lowered the bail to 22,500 ringgit (about $6200), but Zunar maintained that the increased charges and bail amount were “clearly to punish me even before trial.”
When he was officially charged last week, Zunar met the government with exactly the gravity he feels it deserves–which is to say he brought his own props to court in the form of a purple prison jumpsuit and fake handcuffs. In the statement on his website, he mocked Khalid Abu Bakar’s claim that he had provoked police into arresting him:
Ha, ha, ha, I am really amused by the comical statement that he made. Khalid is a funny guy. I would like to invite him to join the comic industry. There is a big demand for fairy-tale storytellers. I am sure with the talent that he has, he can excel in the industry.
But Zunar’s statement also made clear that while his natural proclivity is to lampoon the government’s actions, he is deeply committed to speaking out regardless of the consequences:
In Islam, to fight against a corrupt regime is a great jihad. Caliph Ali, one of the great leaders in Islam, put up the priority right and said, ‘True patriotism is to tell the truth to an unjust ruler’. As a cartoonist, I do it my way. Talent is not a gift, but a responsibility. So I will use it as a tool to convey [the] people’s voice through art and to push for total reform for a better Malaysia. I will not keep quiet.
At their website, Cartoonists Rights Network International is urging the international community to write Malaysian ambassadors on Zunar’s behalf. Using the form letter CRNI provides, US citizens may write to the Malaysian Embassy in Washington, DC by email or postal mail.
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Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.