Lai Seng Sin / AP

Malaysia arrests popular local cartoonist over a tweet

Cartoonist arrested for sedition over tweet about judiciary, after opposition leader jailed on sodomy charges

Malaysia has arrested a cartoonist for sedition over a tweet that allegedly criticized the country’s judiciary for upholding a five-year jail term for opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who had accused the courts of "bowing to the dictates of the political masters."

Anwar began a five-year prison sentence Tuesday after the country's top court ruled there was overwhelming evidence showing that he committed sodomy, which is illegal in Malaysia. The case was widely seen as politically motivated to eliminate any threats to the ruling coalition, whose popularity has been eroding after more than five decades of dominance.

Zulkifli Anwar Ulhaque, better known as Zunar, was arrested Tuesday night after Malaysia's police chief ordered an investigation into his Malay-language tweet that was posted that day and allegedly suggested that judges had been paid off by politicians.

"Profits from the lords of politics must be lucrative," read the tweet, in part.

Prime Minister Najib Razak's government has rejected any suggestion of interference in the case, saying that Malaysia has an independent judiciary and that there have been many rulings against senior government figures.

Zunar, 52, was to be detained until Friday to allow the police to investigate, official news agency Bernama said Wednesday.

Lawmakers also investigated

Zunar has been documenting political upheaval in Malaysia for nearly two decades, according to Article 19, a London-based human rights group. Authorities have banned seven of Zunar's books and have frequently raided his office, the group said.

"When a country is facing a moral crisis like Malaysia, I cannot just close my eyes and sit back. It is my duty as a cartoonist to hold my pen firmly and fight corruption and tyranny," Zunar told Al Jazeera in January, following the deadly attack in Paris on Charlie Hebdo, a satirical weekly publication known for its irreverent cartoons. 

Malaysia’s National Police Chief Khalid Abu Bakar on Tuesday also ordered officers to investigate opposition lawmakers Nga Kor Ming and Rafizi Ramli for sedition in connection with the Anwar case. Nga tweeted that it was time for the people to oppose a cruel regime, while Rafizi tweeted a cartoon of a judge wearing a white wig with a dollar sign on it.

Rights groups criticized the police moves, with New York-based Human Rights Watch saying it was shameful that Malaysian authorities have turned peaceful criticism into a criminal act.

"Clearly it is designed to intimidate and instil fear in people on social media to go silent on their views. It is a further erosion of freedom of expression in Malaysia," said the group's Asia deputy director, Phil Robertson.

After last month's attacks on Charlie Hebdo, Zunar had said there was a need for an international framework to safeguard cartoonists’ rights. “There are so many other smaller-scale Charlie Hebdos around the world," he said. "Cartoonists may have millions of fans, but very few defenders."

Al Jazeera and wire services. Amel Ahmed contributed to this report.

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