KUALA LUMPUR — When Malaysia’s opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was sent to prison in February, controversially convicted on charges alleging sodomy with a political aide, the well-known cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Alhaque could not restrain his anger.
Criticizing the verdict as politically motivated, the cartoonist, better known by his pen name Zunar, posted a series of messages on Twitter mocking Malaysia’s judges. He described the judges as “lackeys in black robes” who are guilty of “bowing to the dictates of the political masters.”
The 53-year-old was quickly charged with nine counts of sedition, which could lead to 43 years in prison if he is found guilty. Asked if he is optimistic that he will win in court, Zunar told the Nikkei Asian Review: “I’m not, no. This is a political case.”
When Anwar was jailed, the government rejected claims of political interference and insisted that Malaysia had an independent judiciary. “The judges will have reached their verdict only after considering all the evidence in a balanced and objective manner,” said a statement issued by the government immediately after the Feb. 5 verdict.
Muhammad Shafee Abdullah, the deputy public prosecutor in the case, wrote after the verdict that Anwar had refused to provide DNA samples and to swear on the Koran. “The only politically motivated actions here are those of Anwar Ibrahim and his supporters who have been demanding that the case be dropped,” said Shafee.
Zunar’s cartoons, which he says are explicitly “political,” rather than satire or comedy, show that he does not take at face value either the Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition government or its leader, Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is also head of the ethnic-Malay United Malays National Organization, the coalition’s dominant party.
One drawing, published in the aftermath of the Anwar’s conviction, showed a black-robed “PM Najib” slamming down a judge’s gavel in front of the shell-shocked opposition leader, with a book entitled “Law” tossed into an adjacent garbage basket.
Zunar believes that the charges against him are part of a government-sponsored campaign aimed at putting pressure on the parliamentary opposition and intimidating critical voices in the media and academia. The National Front, which has governed Malaysia since independence from the U.K. in 1957, was shaken by losing the popular vote in the 2013 general election — although the structure of the electoral system allowed it to retain power with a large majority of parliamentary seats.
The jailing of Anwar, which so irked Zunar, removed the opposition leader from the political fray at a time when Najib was starting to feel the heat over emerging financial problems at a state-owned company known as 1Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB.
The government is also under fire over a recently introduced goods and services tax, intended to boost government revenues, which has been lampooned as an attempt to make up for the losses incurred by 1MDB.
Criticism of Najib over the 1MDB crisis is growing, but its impact may be muted by the collapse amid unrelated religious tensions of a three-party opposition coalition comprised of Anwar’s liberal and multi-ethnic Parti Keadilan Rakyat (People’s Justice Party), the largely ethnic-Chinese Democratic Action Party and the mainly ethnic-Malay Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (Malaysian Islamic Party).
Many leading opposition members, including Anwar’s daughter Nurul Izzah Anwar, face sedition charges. Almost 160 cases are pending against a mix of opposition parliamentarians, journalists, academics and lawyers. “We [the opposition parties] have had 20 [national] parliamentarians and state assembly members charged,” Nurul told the NAR.
In mid-June, there was an anomalous addition to the list, when Tourism and Culture Minister Mohamed Nazri Aziz was charged over comments he made to Crown Prince Ismail Ibni Sultan Ibrahim, a member of the ceremonial aristocracy in the southern state of Johor, telling him to stay out of politics. The crown prince had earlier criticized Najib for failing to show up for a public debate on 1MDB with former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, a persistent critic. Nazri threatened the crown prince, telling local media that “we will whack him.”
Reform and regression
Before the 2013 election, Najib introduced several liberalizing reforms, abolishing detention without trial under a long-standing Internal Security Act, allowing protest rallies for the first time and relaxing some restrictions on the media.
“On peaceful assembly, he did well. We do have assemblies now, and the police don’t crack down as much as they used to,” said Ambiga Sreenevasan, a lawyer who was at the forefront of the reform campaign and once fronted Bersih (Clean), an electoral reform group seeking changes to election rules that give great weight to voters in UMNO’s rural heartlands. Supporters of Bersih clashed with police in 2011 and 2012 during mass protests in Kuala Lumpur.
Najib hoped the reforms — and a promise to abolish the Sedition Act — would blunt the opposition’s appeal to voters and shore up the National Front vote by boosting his image as a reformist leader.
“The reforms, they were all from Najib, and in the 2013 election the UMNO campaign was very presidential, it was all Najib,” said Azmi Sharom, a law lecturer at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur.
The changes in media and public assembly laws were welcomed by campaigners, in spite of a lack of progress on electoral reform. However, Najib changed tack abruptly after the closely fought 2013 election, seemingly under pressure from conservative elements in the National Front.
“After the election, they [UMNO] seemed to think that despite giving them [the opposition supporters] what they want, it didn’t work,” Azmi told the NAR.
Instead of abolishing the Sedition Act, Najib strengthened it, while a new Prevention of Terrorism Act passed this year has reintroduced detention without trial.
The Malaysian government argues that the anti-terrorism legislation is needed to address the threat of the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS. Najib told lawmakers in November 2014 that the government had identified 17 Malaysians who had fought with ISIS. However, the need for the new legislation was disputed by Washington.
While praising Malaysia for its work to counter terrorism, the U.S. government’s publication “Country Reports on Terrorism 2014,”published ahead of the passage of the anti-terror law, said that: “Malaysia’s existing legal system is capable of disrupting terrorist plots before they are carried out, and before fighters travel to foreign conflicts.”
Within Malaysia, human rights activists say the claimed threat from terrorism is a fig leaf for a revival of the government’s draconian approach to opposition. “The Prevention of Terrorism Act, the use of the sedition laws, the arrests of [activists in] civil society, it’s all there,” said Sreenevasan.
The constitutional standing of the sedition laws has been challenged by Azmi, who was charged with sedition over comments he made to The Malay Mail, a local newspaper, in August 2014 about a local government dispute in Selangor, a commercial and industrial region near Kuala Lumpur.
“They [the police] told me ‘sorry sir, we have instructions from above to charge you with sedition,'” said Azmi. The charge was filed by a police officer — “some low ranking dude” — according to the accused, who added: “Obviously he was instructed to go through the papers, the online portals, anything that looks vaguely suspicious [and] file sedition charges.”
Azmi claims that the Sedition Act, a relic of British colonial rule in the country, then known as Malaya, is open to a constitutional challenge on the grounds that it is a pre-independence law that restricts freedom of speech. All the sedition cases are on hold pending the outcome of Azmi’s petition, which was filed in September — though no date has been given for a ruling.
Khalid Abdul Samad, a Malaysian Islamic Party lawmaker who has also been charged with sedition, said he was optimistic that the Federal Court, whose decision cannot be appealed, will rule in favor of the academic. “I believe the legal arguments are in his favor,” said Khalid. “That is why they are taking so long to make a decision,” he added. “The Sedition Act was supposed to have been abolished as part of Najib’s election promise.”Show