KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — A Malaysian cartoonist known for lampooning the ruling coalition was charged Friday with nine counts of sedition over a series of tweets criticizing the country's judiciary.
The charges against Zulkiflee Anwar Alhaque, better known as Zunar, came amid a widening government crackdown on opposition politicians and the media slammed by critics as a move to stifle freedom of expression.
"This is a record, being charged nine times and using the sedition law. It is excessive and targeted at silencing vocal critics," said Zunar's lawyer, Latheefa Koya.
Zunar faces up to 43 years in jail if found guilty on all nine charges under the colonial-era law, she said. He was released on bail after being charged.
The nine tweets criticizing the judiciary were posted Feb. 10 when opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim began serving a 5-year prison sentence after losing his final appeal of a sodomy conviction.
"The lackeys in black robes are proud of their sentence. The rewards from the political masters must be plenty," said one of the tweets. "Today Malaysia is seen as a country without law," said another.
Anwar's arrest was widely seen at home and abroad as being politically motivated to eliminate a threat to the ruling coalition, whose popularity has slowly been eroding since 2008 after more than five decades of unquestioned dominance. Anwar and his three-party opposition alliance were seen as the most potent political challenge to Prime Minister Najib Razak's National Front coalition.
Anwar led his alliance to unprecedented gains in 2008 elections and made further inroads in polls in 2013, when the National Front won with a slimmer majority and lost the popular vote to the opposition.
A defiant Zunar posted a new cartoon on Twitter before his release on bail, vowing to "draw until the last drop of ink." The cartoon showed Zunar being cuffed and with a metal chain on his neck, but still drawing with a brush in his mouth.
Sedition as defined by Malaysian law includes promoting hatred against the government.
Scores of people including opposition politicians, activists, academicians and journalists are being investigated or have been charged under the Sedition Act since last year, mostly for criticizing the government or ruling officials.
Zunar was detained again after being released on bail on Friday for questioning about a picture on Facebook showing Prime Minister Najib Razak in prison attire. Latheefa said the picture was posted on Zunar's fan club page and he had no knowledge of it. The cartoonist was released after a few hours.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said the move against Zunar showed the government has "a new-found tendency to equate repression with effective governance."
"Day by day, Malaysians are losing more and more of their rights and democracy at the hands of an increasingly oppressive government," it said in a statement.
Najib has said the government would eventually abolish the Sedition Act, which was introduced in 1949 during British colonial rule. But he backtracked after the 2013 elections.