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Political cartoonist arrested hours before launch of new book

(CIJ/IFEX) - The Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) is concerned by the arrest of political cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, better known by his pen name Zunar, under the Sedition Act on 24 September 2010, just a few hours before he was due to launch a new book.

According to news reports, police raided Zunar's office in Kuala Lumpur at 4 p.m. and seized about 70 copies of the book, "Cartoon-o-phobia", as well as several cartoon drawings. Police also searched the premises of his printer and distributor but did not find any copies of the book there.

His lawyer, Latheefa Koya, said Zunar is being held overnight at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport police station. She added that the police will be seeking a remand order from the Sepang Magistrate's Court the next day, which may see him detained longer.

The Sedition Act 1948 is highly faulted by critics for being overbroad in defining sedition, and for being frequently abused by the ruling Federal Government to silence dissent. The law provides for punishments of a fine not exceeding RM 5,000 (approx. US$1,617) or a maximum jail term of three years, or both, for first-time offenders.

This is the first time Zunar is being charged under the Act although his books have been banned before under another notorious law, the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1987. "1 Funny Malaysia", "Perak Darul Kartun" (Perak, A Land of Cartoons) and "Isu Dalam Kartun" (Issues in Cartoon) were banned by the Home Ministry in June. All consisted of cartoon critiques of the actions and policies of the present Federal Government. Zunar has filed for a court petition to challenge the ban on "1 Funny Malaysia" and "Perak Darul Kartun".

His latest book, "Cartoon-o-phobia", is a similar compilation of political cartoons published on popular news site "Malaysiakini" as well as new ones on high-profile issues such as the unsolved murder of a Mongolian, the sodomy charge against Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim, the perceived influence of the prime minister's wife and other scandals of the day. Amid a climate of increased intolerance on the part of the authorities, it is highly likely that Zunar's latest book will be banned, too.

However, the book launch went ahead as scheduled despite Zunar's absence. His wife, Fazlinah Rosley, delivered his speech on his behalf and conveyed his defiant text message, which said, among others, that the authorities may imprison his body but not his mind. Only a single copy of the book was revealed for the launch because of police presence outside the hall where the event was held. Although the launch didn't see a single copy being sold, orders were brisk from the 100-odd people who were there in solidarity and support of Zunar.

CIJ calls for the immediate release of Zunar and for the investigation to be dropped. We reiterate our long-standing call for the Sedition Act to be abolished together with other outdated, draconian legislation that seeks to control expression. As long as these laws exist, they will continue to be open to abuse by the government of the day as a means to curtail legitimate criticism.

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