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(Bangkok) – A Malaysian civil court ruling in the case of a prominent political cartoonist has set back the right to freedom of expression in the country, Human Rights Watch said today. The verdict finding the initial arrest and detention of Zulkifli Anwar Ulhaque, better known as Zunar, was lawful under the Sedition Act and Printing Presses and Public Act was a disturbing rejection of the right to freedom of expression in all its forms, including cartoons.

However, in a positive development, the court ruled that the authorities’ continued holding of books and artwork seized from Zunar was unlawful after the prosecutor decided to not formally file charges against the cartoonist. The court ruled that the books and artwork immediately be returned to Zunar, and ordered the registrar of the court to assess what damages should be awarded to Zunar. 

Zunar has used political cartoons to highlight the responsibility of government officials for human rights abuses and other problems facing Malaysia. These include corruption, abuse of power, mismanagement of government revenues, racism, and failure to protect religious freedom. Repeated government attempts to stop his cartooning led Zunar on June 15, 2011, to file a civil suit against the government and police seeking damages for unlawful arrest and detention, and for confiscation of books and an original cartoon.

“The court’s verdict against Zunar is no laughing matter, but of real consequence for Malaysia” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The conclusion to be drawn is that politicians and officials who feel stung by Zunar’s pen apparently count for more than free expression.” 

Zunar’s lawsuit stems from police actions on September 24, 2010, several hours before the expected launch of his book Cartoon-O-Phobia. Police raided Zunar’s office in Kuala Lumpur, confiscated all copies of the book they could find, and arrested Zunar for sedition and publishing without a license. After handcuffing him, police ferried Zunar to seven different police stations during the course of an evening before detaining him overnight in a police station one hour’s drive from Kuala Lumpur. Home Minister Hishammudduin Hussein maintained at the time that Zunar was arrested for poking fun at the judiciary and at religion. However, a judge ordered Zunar released on September 25 without charge when arresting officers could not identify what content in Cartoon-O-Phobia they considered to be seditious.  

In subsequent civil court proceedings, the first defendant, arresting officer Arikrishna Apparau, asserted he had examined Cartoon-O-Phobia, and believed the cartoons capable of confusing Malaysians and inciting hatred of the government and individual leaders. Zunar responded that the police never explained what content in his book they considered seditious, thus violating his right to be promptly informed of the grounds for his arrest.

In his civil suit, Zunar sought the return of all confiscated books plus damages. He alleged that his livelihood had been seriously affected by the continued ban on Cartoon-O-Phobia and two previous books, 1 Funny Malaysia and Perak Darul Kartun (Perak, Land of Cartoon). Government officials have threatened legal action against printing presses and publishers associated with Zunar’s work, and against bookstores who stocked his books. In 2011, Zunar received the prestigious Hellman-Hammett award, given to writers and authors facing political persecution and violations of their rights to free expression.

The government also has announced deepening censorship on cartoons by barring all cartoons for a period of two weeks before the general election, expected to be called later this year. Zunar and a group of political cartoonists announced their opposition to this violation of their rights and said they will defy the ban. 

“The government’s decision to ban cartoons before the elections shows a remarkable lack of confidence in Malaysian voters - not to mention, no sense of humor,” Robertson said. “Politicians from the prime minister down should recognize voters can laugh at them, and the government will not collapse.” 

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