Malaysian cartoonist Zunar defiant 'to the last drop of my ink'

KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) - Malaysian political cartoonist Zunar faces a possible 43 years in prison for sedition, but the defiant artist said that the looming threat won't stop his hard-hitting caricatures lampooning the ruling establishment.

"You can chain my hands, you can chain my legs, you can chain my neck or my body. But I will keep drawing," said Zunar, 52, holding a cartoon showing himself shackled yet still working with a pen clenched in his teeth.

"I will keep drawing until the last drop of my ink," he added during an interview at his Kuala Lumpur office.

Malaysia's best-known political cartoonist, whose real name is Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, has become a symbol of a widening government drive to throttle its critics that has seen dozens of people hit with sedition investigations over the past year.

Zunar has been arrested previously and his works, which skewer the government's recurring corruption scandals and alleged repression, have repeatedly been seized by police in what he calls a "political vendetta".

But the pressure escalated dramatically on April 3 with the filing of nine sedition charges - a single-day Malaysian "record", according to his lawyers.

They could potentially land Zunar in jail for 43 years, his lawyers say, though the penalty is not expected to be that harsh.

Few have actually been jailed in the sedition blitz, which political analysts view more as a bid by the 58-year-old government to cow and silence adversaries as it loses ground to a reform-minded opposition.

Tightening the screws, Prime Minister Najib Razak's government this month pushed through even tougher sedition penalties and an anti-terrorism bill that allows detention without judicial review.

Amnesty International said the moves are turning Malaysia into a "human rights black hole".

- A singular voice -

Jailing Zunar would muzzle an artist who has become a singular commentator in a country whose mainstream media is government-gagged and where robust political cartooning is rare.

Zunar feels cartoons convey ideas more clearly and widely than print, especially to an Internet-savvy younger generation of Malaysians - he draws for leading news portal Malaysiakini - and less-educated rural voters who are the government's vote bank.

"So that's why the government are very worried, because the people in the village, they still can read this book and they can understand," the short, stocky Zunar said while holding up one of his banned collected works.

Officially, the sedition charges against him relate to Twitter comments criticising the February imprisonment of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.

Anwar was jailed for five years for sodomy in a case he insists was fabricated by Najib's government.

The premier has admitted meeting Anwar's accuser before the charges were brought, but denies manipulating the case.

But Zunar, whose late parents were shop-owners in a rural northern state and supporters of the ruling United Malays National Organisation (Umno), said his cartoons are the real reason for the sedition charges.

"They want me to stop drawing cartoons and to stop producing this type of cartoon that the government doesn't like," he said.

- 'We will win' -

Robert Russell, who heads the Cartoonists Rights Network International, said bold cartoonists worldwide are under increasing pressure, as shown by the deadly attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January.

"When I suggested to Zunar that he should just leave the country, he became indignant, saying: 'Why do they (authorities) have more right to be here than I do?'" Russell said, calling him "courageous".

A regular subject of Zunar's merciless, bold-lined, black-ink drawings is what he calls the "conspiracy" to eliminate opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.

Before joining the opposition, Anwar was an Umno star who was ousted and jailed in a late-1990s power struggle.

The episode deeply divided Malaysia and inspired Zunar, a former medical lab technician, to turn his cartooning hobby into a full-time career.

Zunar also regularly lampoons one of the country's most sensitive scandals, the 2002 purchase of French submarines under then defence minister Najib.

The deal allegedly involved kickbacks to Malaysian officials - denied by the government - and has been linked to the murder of a Mongolian woman involved in the negotiations.

No officials have yet been called to account in the affair although two police officers, members of an elite unite that guards top ministers, have been convicted over the killing of 28-year-old model and interpreter Altantuya Shaariibuu.

But Zunar's favourite subject is Najib's wife, Rosmah Mansor.

He takes merciless aim at her alleged luxurious tastes, widely rumoured control of Najib and mane of dyed black hair. His latest book of cartoons - banned and seized by authorities - calls her his "muse".

A preliminary court appearance in Zunar's sedition case is set for May 20.

Meanwhile, he promises even more unsparing cartoons, and says the Umno-dominated ruling coalition will fall someday.

"I always tell Malaysians this struggle is like an endless marathon. The important thing is you keep yourself on the track and move forward. We will win," he said.