Malaysian police have detained a cartoonist and are investigating two lawmakers for sedition over tweets and a cartoon condemning the judiciary for dismissing opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s final appeal against a sodomy conviction.
Anwar began a 5-year jail sentence Tuesday after the country’s top court ruled there was overwhelming evidence showing that he sodomized a former male aide in 2008.
Police detained cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Alhaque, better known as Zunar, at his home late Tuesday over a series of tweets on Anwar’s case. A cartoon he posted on Twitter showed Prime Minister Najib Razak as the judge in Anwar’s case.
National police chief Khalid Abu Bakar also directed his men to investigate opposition lawmakers Nga Kor Ming and Rafizi Ramli for sedition. Nga tweeted it was time for the people to oppose a cruel regime, while Rafizi tweeted a cartoon of a judge wearing a white wig with the dollar sign on it.
The police moves were criticized by rights groups, with New York-based Human Rights Watch saying it was shameful that Malaysian authorities had 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.
Anwar’s case was widely seen at home and abroad as politically motivated to eliminate any threats to the ruling coalition, whose popularity has slowly been eroding since 2008 after more than five decades of unquestioned dominance.
He is the most vocal and visible symbol of the opposition’s resurgence and seen as the most potent political threat to Prime Minister Najib.
Anwar was accused of sodomizing Saiful Bukhari Azlan, then 23, who was working as a lowly aide in the opposition campaign office in 2008.
Homosexuality is a crime in Muslim-majority Malaysia and is punishable by up to 20 years in prison and by whipping, although prosecutions are rare.
Anwar was acquitted by the High Court in 2012 but the Appeals Court overturned the acquittal in March last year and sentenced him to five years in prison. Anwar appealed in Federal Court, but lost the battle Tuesday.
The US, UK, Australia and the EU expressed concern over Anwar’s jailing, while human rights groups such as Amnesty International and the International Federation for Human Rights called the verdict “disgraceful” and a “black day” for justice.
The Federal Court in its ruling said Anwar’s allegation that the case was a political conspiracy “remains an allegation, unsubstantiated by any facts whatsoever.” It also rejected the defense argument that the semen samples taken from Saiful’s body were tampered with by police.
Addressing the judges from the dock after the verdict Monday, Anwar said the charge was a “fabrication coming from a political conspiracy to stop my political career.”
“You have become partners in crime in the murder of judicial independence,” he said, prompting the five judges to walk out of the room.
Anwar continued speaking from the dock. “Allah be my witness. I pledge that I will not be silenced. I will fight on for freedom and justice. I will never surrender.”
In an apparently pre-written statement released minutes after the verdict, the Prime Minister’s Office said the judiciary is independent and that Anwar’s case has gone through an exhaustive legal process.
It called on all parties to respect the legal process and judgment.
Anwar previously was imprisoned for six years after being ousted as deputy prime minister in 1998 on earlier charges of sodomizing his former family driver and abusing his power. He was freed in 2004 after Malaysia’s top court quashed that sodomy conviction. That case was also widely seen as politically motivated, as it came at a time when he was locked in a power struggle with then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.
Anwar led his alliance to unprecedented gains in 2008 elections and made further inroads in 2013 polls. Najib’s National Front coalition won with a slimmer majority and lost the popular vote to the opposition.