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A Malaysian Cartoonist Told Us Why He's Risking 43 Years in Prison for Tweeting

VICE News spoke to Zulkiflee Anwar Haque, a.k.a. Zunar, right before he returned to Malaysia to face trial under the country's Sedition Act. He could be incarcerated until his mid-nineties.

by Sally Hayden
Nov 6 2015, 6:03pm

Imagen por Zunar

A famous Malaysian cartoonist is facing 43 years in jail under a British colonial-era act for tweeting — and he's flown back home to fight the charges.

VICE News met Zulkiflee Anwar Haque — usually known as Zunar — at London's Cartoon Museum on Tuesday, shortly before he was due to travel to Malaysia to stand trial.

The 52-year-old was arrested in February after posting tweets suggesting that Malaysian judges were being bribed by politicians.

"Profits from the lords of politics must be lucrative," one read. In total, he stands accused of nine charges under Malaysia's colonial-era Sedition Act, which dates from 1948, when the southeast Asian country was a British colony.

The power of cartoons was highlighted after January's attack on the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, when 12 people were killed, including five artists.

Like Charlie Hebdo, Zunar's books of cartoons are considered controversial. They have been banned across Malaysia with officials saying they include content "detrimental to public order."

Though he may be incarcerated until his mid-nineties, Zunar told VICE News he has to go back. "This trial is very, very important, not for myself, but for the country," he said, because while the government can detain anybody under the Sedition Act, when he arrives in court it needs to be "legally justified."

"Why do they do this? The pressure [is now on] the government, and I know I get good support from the international community, the United Nations… so the world is watching my trial. So that is why I want to go back. I want to expose this for my country, not for me alone, and the government will get an official trial. This is my responsibility."

Zunar told VICE News that his "philosophy" with regards to cartoon-drawing was that the "responsibility is bigger than fear."

"This is my responsibility to really make things happen and if you don't break this nobody will, so somebody has to do this and it's me."

Related: Malaysia Reintroduces Indefinite Detention to Stop 'Terrorists' — and Maybe to Quell Opposition

He added that he didn't have much hope on the outcome because he feels though "we do have a few good judges," he doesn't think the system is independent. "There is very slim hope for those in politically motivated cases to win against the government because [the] government controls the whole system."

"I don't want to think so much about the outcome because I want to concentrate on drawing cartoons. If I think so much about that it will affect my output. I will start to practice censorship. So I don't want to do that."

Another Twitter fan, Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim remains in prison, following a conviction for sodomy which was upheld in February, leading to a five-year sentence.

The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which is appointed by the UN Human Rights Council, said in a letter earlier this week that the conviction was politically motivated, while calling for Anwar's immediate release.

Zunar told VICE News he's a supporter of Anwar. "In Malaysia, we are a very rich country, but we are still poor because of the corruption," he said. "Anwar can [fix] this… He's not corrupt and because he's not corrupt he can fight corruption and he can fix the nation." 

Zunar said this explains Anwar's imprisonment: "When he comes, first he will introduce measures to stop corruption and all the cronies will all be affected."

Meanwhile, Zunar's books remain banned across the country.

"The fact that a world-class cartoonist like Zunar struggles to publish his work in print anywhere in Malaysia is an indication of the sorry state of freedom," David Heinemann, who works with free speech organization Index on Censorship, told VICE News.

He continued: "The charges against Zunar risk silencing any criticism, depriving Malaysia of democracy altogether — these spurious charges must be dropped."

In Zunar's opinion, the suppression of free speech in Malaysia is causing people to become more and more "creative."

"I draw daily," he said. "In the taxi between meetings. Wherever I go I will draw. Today I drew, tomorrow morning I will draw, in the airplane I will draw about what is happening in Malaysia."

The cartoonist also called laughter "the best protest."

"It is very effective, to laugh at them. And if more and more people take part and laugh at the government their ability goes. Because if people don't respect you they laugh at you. And many people take part in this by sharing my cartoons."

Related: Malaysia's Scandal-Plagued Prime Minister Just Purged His Cabinet

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd