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Malaysia Cartoonist to Be Charged With Sedition

Malaysian cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Alhaque, better known as Zunar, wearing a prison outfit and plastic handcuffs poses for photographers prior to launching his book in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, Feb. 14, 2015.

A prominent Malaysian political cartoonist says he is being charged with sedition, becoming the latest government critic targeted by authorities in Kuala Lumpur.

Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, known as Zunar, told VOA he would appear in court Friday to face nine charges under Malaysia's Sedition Act, which has been increasingly used to jail dissenters.

Zunar believed the charges were related to a series of tweets in which he criticized the Malaysian judicial system. "They have a vendetta. They are using this to punish me for the cartoons. So this is how they do it. Using the tweets, maybe it is easier for them to punish me in that way" he told VOA.

The 52-year-old's cartoons have been a consistent annoyance for leaders within Malaysia’s ruling Barisan Nasional party, which has been in power since the country achieved independence in 1957.

The satirical drawings often directly accuse government leaders of corruption, mismanagement, and of trampling free speech. As a result, some of his books have been banned or confiscated by police.

In the tweets in question, Zunar accused judges of accepting bribes from their "political masters" to convict opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim of sodomy in February.

Anwar, an ex-deputy prime minister and the government's main political foe, is serving a five-year jail sentence after being convicted of sodomizing a male aide. His supporters, and many analysts, said the charges awere fabricated and politically motivated.

Sedition is punishable by up to three years in prison in Malaysia. But Zunar said he has been told by a lawyer that since he faced multiple charges, he could face up to 43 years in jail, and that his bail could be set at $13,000.

Regardless, he said he would continue writing cartoons for as long as he could. "I will never be silent. Because this is what they want. Their motive is to make sure that I stop drawing. So if I stop now, that's what they want ... I will keep drawing until the last drop of my ink," he said.

Zunar's cartoons are published by Malaysiakini, one of the country's online news portals that have a reputation for being relatively independent and have come under increased scrutiny by authorities.

Earlier this week, five members of the Malaysian Insider news portal were arrested on sedition charges, presumably over an article deemed by the government to be inaccurate. They were later released on bail, though it is not clear they will face charges.

Local and international rights groups have condemned the expanded use of the Sedition Act, which dates back to British colonial times.

"There is a growing intolerance by authorities who do not want their activities and the way they are ruling the country to be criticized by journalists," Benjamin Ismail of Reporters Without Borders told VOA. "We are asking the government to drop these charges and we have been asking for many years now for them to repeal this law.

Ismail said it was clear that Zunar was being targeted because his cartoons were viewed as a threat by the government.

"Whenever he covers these very sensitive topics, he does it with his own sense of humor. And I think that is an additional element of irritation for the authorities. Because basically Zunar has no taboo and does not censor himself and he believes, rightly according to us, that his work and his status as an independent journalist and cartoonist allows him to express freely his opinion," he said.

Since being re-elected in 2013, Prime Minister Najib Razak has used the Sedition Act with increasing frequency to silence critics, Human Rights Watch's deputy Asia director Phil Robertson told VOA on Tuesday.

"The definitions in that law are so broad that the government can criminalize any speech that they want. And they've decided to let the hooks off and really go after the opposition," he said.