By: John Berthelsen

Malaysia’s attorney general has dropped all charges against the irrepressible political cartoonist Zunar, who defied deposed Prime Minister Najib Razak with a stinging series of almost-daily cartoons on the independent news website Malaysiakini that could have put him in prison for 43 years if the Barisan Nasional had pulled out a victory in national elections.

Also acquitted of sedition charges with Zunar, whose full name is Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, were lawmaker R. Sivarasa and civil rights lawyer N. Surendran. The previous government, which was defenestrated by the voters in a May 9 landslide, used the law against a long list of other critics including opposition party leaders, journalists, politicians and academics who dared to call attention to the massive corruption surrounding the state-backed 1Malaysia Development Bhd. Investment fund and other scandals.

The question now is whether the new Pakatan Harapan government headed by the nonagenarian former – and current – Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad will drop repressive colonial-era laws against free expression. Mahathir, who used such laws against critics during his 22 years in power that ended in 2003, vowed to repeal them, having had them used against him in the 2018 campaign. But shortly after the election, he suggested – to a firestorm of criticism – that a fake news law passed just before the election in an effort to protect Najib and his political party might be revised, not eliminated outright.

It was Mahathir, in Operation Lalang in 1987, who ordered the jailing of 106 persons  including NGO activists, opposition politicians, intellectuals, students, artists, scientists and others for two years without trial. He also ordered the revocation of the publishing licenses of two dailies, the ethnic Chinese-backed Star tabloid and Sin Chew Jit Poh and two weeklies, The Sunday Star and Watan. Earlier, he ordered the deportation of two reporters for what was then the Asian Wall Street Journal for reporting on corruption in the country. The laws that allowed him to do that remain on the books.

“Zunar, Sivarasa and Surendran have shown great courage in shining a spotlight on injustices such as corruption and abuse of power,” according to a statement by Amnesty International. “Their acquittal is a positive development but the Malaysian authorities must do more to protect people who dare to speak out.”

Zunar himself and others have called for the repeal of not only the 1948 sedition act, which prescribes prison sentences for conduct such as speech and organization, “that tends toward insurrection against the established order.” The measure was put into effect by the British colonial government following WWII in an effort to quell a Communist insurrection. However, both the British and the Barisan Nasional used it against government critics.

“The new government must take this opportunity to usher in a new era for human rights by fully restoring freedom of expression and abolishing the 1948 Sedition Act, an archaic piece of legislation which has been repeatedly used to target dissenting voices,” Amnesty International said. “The authorities must also drop any other charges under the Act and, pending its repeal, ensure that no one else is arrested, investigated, charged or imprisoned under its draconian provisions.”

The 57-year-old Zunar, who was banned for the past two years from leaving the country, immediately took off for a vacation to London. Despite the repeated attempts to silence him, he continued to draw cartoons of Najib and Rosmah, highlighting her huge bouffant hairdo, her portly figure, and a gigantic diamond ring that she was said to have bought for US$24 million from a New York jeweler.

Zunar, who once worked for a pro-government Malay-language daily, joined Malaysia’s opposition after Anwar Ibrahim was sacked by Mahathir as Finance Minister in 1998 and was later jailed. Over the years, his cartoon books have been confiscated and bookstores banned from selling his work.

All that changed with the May 9 election, which ended the 60-plus year reign of the race-based Barisan Nasional and its lead component, the United Malays National Organization, which Najib headed.  The government is now seeking to conclude an investigation into several cases including 1MDB and the scandal-ridden purchase of US$$1 billion worth of French submarines in the late 1990s that resulted in a €114 million kickback.

As has been widely reported, following Najib’s downfall, police raided his residences and confiscated a breathtaking haul including items valued at a staggering RM910 million-1.1 billion (US$193.0-233.4 million). The items taken from their homes appear virtually all to have been intended to adorn Rosman’s frame. In addition to US$28 million in 26 different currencies, they included 25 bags containing 12,000 jewelry items worth at least US$108 million, The bags included 1,400 chains, 2,200 rings, 2,800 pairs of earrings and 14 tiaras.

The most expensive piece of jewelry was a yellow gold necklace with white diamonds estimated to cost US$1.23 million. The loot also included 567 handbags, of which 267 are estimated to total US$12.6 million from 73 brands including Birkin from Hermes, Chanel and Bijan. Six bags contained 423 watches including brands like Rolex, Chopard and Richard Mille. There were 234 pairs of sunglass brands such as Versace, Dior and Gucci.

Despite the confiscations and the growing legal pursuit, Najib, who was barred at the last minute from leaving the country on a chartered flight to Jakarta when it came clear that the Barisan had been drubbed in the election,  portrays himself as a victim of a vindictive new government.

He is acting as opposition leader and is fighting back, say political analysts in Malaysia.  The forces are regrouping, one said, but they are remaining undercover.