On 15 June 2011, 11:00 am, Zunar will be filing a civil suit at the Kuala Lumpur High Court against the government and the police for his unlawful arrest and detention, and seizure of his books Cartoon-O-Phobia and an original political cartoon drawing in September 2010. Among others, he will be seeking exemplary and aggravated losses and damages, and the return of the books and drawing.

Zulkifli Anwar Ulhaque or Zunar as he is better known is a celebrated Malaysian political cartoonist for the past two decades, publishing his work mainly in the opposition press, alternative and online media. His targets have mainly been the Malaysian government and its agencies and other public institutions, highlighting several key themes — abuse of power and corruption by the police, judiciary, election commission and government officials; excessive government spending; and how the country is turning into a failed state.

Zunar and Malaysiakini (online independent press and publisher of Zunar’s cartoons — both online and print versions) were scheduled to launch the latest compilation of Zunar’s political cartoons titled Cartoon-O-Phobia in the evening of 24 September 2010.

In an effort to preempt the launch, the police raided Zunar’s office in Kuala Lumpur several hours before the launch, and arrested him on vague grounds of sedition and publishing offences. Despite protestation from Zunar’s lawyers, all 66 copies of Cartoon-o-phobia found at the office were seized together with an original political cartoon drawing. He was arrested and brought to several police stations for no apparent reasons before detaining him overnight at a police station in Sepang, about an hour’s drive from Kuala Lumpur.

The whole arrest and detention process reeked of bad faith as it was clearly done to scuttle the launch as: there was no reason to arrest him as he was prepared to cooperate with the police for questioning; the police could not tell which cartoons were offensive or definitively under what offence; took him to several police stations for no good reason and eventually detaining him out of the city when there is no reason to do so.

Zunar was not questioned during the first 24 hours of detention (another sign of bad faith) and on the next day, the police sought a remand order of 4 days from the Magistrate. However, the Magistrate only allowed another day of remand and in the evening of 25 September, Zunar was released.

Zunar’s arrest attracted condemnation from opposition leaders and civil society, and with legal representation, led to his quick release. The police also attempted to seize more copies from the printers and Malaysiakini but could not find any.

Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein had said that Zunar was arrested because he had supposedly mocked the judiciary, religion as well as the issue regarding the term ‘Allah’ although the police during arrest while flicking through the book pointed randomly at a few cartoons including those concerning UMNO, the main government party.

So far no criminal charges have been preferred against Zunar. If he is charged, both sedition and printing presses offences carry punishment of up to three years’ imprisonment and/or fine.

His previous cartoon books Perak Darul Kartun and 1Funny Malaysia were banned by the Home Ministry in June 2010 when it claimed they were “not suitable and detrimental to public order…influence the people to revolt against the leaders and government policies”.

As a result, bookshops and vendors have been reluctant to stock Zunar’s books and many have even returned them. Sales have mainly been done online and at events. Failure to challenge the arrest, detention and seizure will mean a further loss of earnings for Zunar and his publishers. More imperatively, it will certainly have a serious chilling effect on the freedom of speech and the media.

This civil suit aims to bring into focus constitutional and human rights arguments, the police’s excessive powers and abuses; illiberal and outdated laws like the Sedition Act 1948 and the Printing Presses and Publication Act 1984, and collusion between the government and the police.

The civil suit will be brought by Lawyers for Liberty, a human rights and law reform organisation. For more information, please contact Fadiah Nadwa Fikri, Campaign Director (fadiahnadw[email protected]) or Eric Paulsen, Adviser ([email protected]).

Lawyers for Liberty
M34, 2nd Floor
No.1B, Jalan 10/3
46000 Petaling Jaya
Selangor, Malaysia

Email: [email protected]
Tel: 603 7960 4537; 603 7955 1544