Malaysian cartoonist Zulkiflee Awar Ulhaque, known as Zunar, lodged his complaint of unlawful detention against the Malaysian police and government, following his September 2010 arrest.
On 24 September 2010, police raided Zunar’s Kuala Lumpur office several hours before the scheduled release of a compilation of his cartoons, entitled “Cartoon-o-phobia”.
The cartoonist, whose work criticises public figures and organisations within Malaysia, was arrested charges of sedition and publishing offences. If found guilty under the Sedition Act, Zunar faced a maximum three-year jail sentence. During the raid on his office, 66 copies of Cartoon-o-phobia on the premises were seized by police, despite protests from Zunar’s lawyers.
Zunar believes that the arrest and detention process was an attempt to “scuttle the launch” of his cartoon collection, and was conducted in “bad faith”. The cartoonist said: “I perform my duty as a political cartoonist to be a ‘watchdog’ to the authorities and to represent the voice of the people through art. Thus, based on their continuous actions, I knew the Malaysian government was not happy with my work, and they try to do everything to stop me from producing cartoons.”
He added: “I think the arrest was politically motivated in order to prevent me from drawing cartoons that promote alternative thinking and critical voices.”
Following his arrest, police were unable to determine which cartoons were offensive, or what offence the cartoonist was in breach of. The cartoonist was moved between several police stations, but was not questioned during the first 24 hours of detention. He was released without charge on the evening of the 25 September.
Zunar has brought a civil suit against the government and the police, challenging them for his unlawful arrest and detention, and the confiscation of the books. Zunar is seeking general, aggravated and exemplary damages, along with the return of the property which was confiscated during the raid.
He said: “I know it is a big decision to challenge the Malaysian government in the court. The stakes are high. If I lose I have to pay up to RM40,000.00 (around GBP 7,000). But I vow to keep fighting as my rights of expression is guaranteed under the Malaysian Constitution. I also hope I can create more awareness to the public about the [state of] press freedom in this country, [where] drawing political cartoons has become a crime.”
In January this year, the case began at the Kuala Lumpur High Court. Four witnesses, including the arresting officer, who decided that the whole book and not selected pages were seditious, testified before the court. Government lawyers attempted to justify that the arrest, detention and confiscation of the cartoons were done in good faith, in accordance with the law.
The case resumed on 5 April. According to his Twitter feed, government lawyers told the court that Zunar was arrested under the Printing Presses Act, and that the cartoons offered an element of incitement. The lawyers added that all pages of “Cartoon-o-phobia” were inflammatory.
Zunar explained that in the sessions of the 5 and 6 April, police officers Zaihairul Idrus, Arikrishnana and Marina Hashim gave testimony to the court. He said: “in the last session on 5 and 6 April, three police officers testified and tried to justify the arrest. They constantly said: “Every page of Zunar’s book contains cartoons that depict political leaders, the police and the judiciary, and can incite hatred and misunderstandings among the public.”
Seven other books of the cartoonists’ work have also been banned under the Printing Presses and Publication Act, as the Home Ministry secretary-general Mahmood Adam described them as “not suitable and detrimental to public order.” It was also reported that Adam said the books could influence the public to overthrow the government. In July 2010, Zunar filed a suit to challenge the banning of his books, but this was rejected by the court later that month.
The court will return their decision on 23 May.