Two 16-year-old boys have been charged with murder over a deadly fire at a private Islamic school in Kuala Lumpur that killed 23 people earlier this month.
They were charged together yesterday, but no plea was recorded. Neither faces the death sentence if found guilty, as Malaysia's legal system does not impose capital punishment on minors. Magistrate Siti Radziah Kamarudin asked journalists to leave the court as the accused are minors.
They will be jointly tried and face 23 counts of murder, one for each dead victim. Their case is set for mention on Nov 28.
The fire two weeks ago at the Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah Tahfiz centre killed 21 students and two school wardens. Victims were trapped behind barred windows in the pre-dawn blaze that swept through the top floor of the three-storey building in the Keramat suburb.
Investigators initially thought the fire was caused by a short circuit but later ruled it out after traces of petrol, along with two gas cylinder tanks, were found at the entrance of the dorm on the third floor.
Closed-circuit television camera footage obtained from neighbouring buildings showed the presence of several teenagers who had crept into the school building hours before the fire began.
Seven suspects, aged between 12 and 18, were picked up by police the following day. It was later established that the teens had torched the school to exact revenge after being embroiled in a disagreement with some of the school's students.
Yesterday, the two boys accused of murder were also charged with drug use in a separate court. Both pleaded guilty.
Three others from the group of seven were also charged with drug use yesterday, but they pleaded not guilty. The youngest of the trio, a 12-year-old, was granted bail.
Later that day, the oldest of the seven suspects, Mohammad Shahrul Nizam Ikmal Shafi-in, 18, pleaded guilty after being charged as an adult with drug abuse.
Businessman Sharifuddin Musa, 45, whose son suffered burns on his back, told reporters: "I can forgive, but I am sad about what happened. The other family members and I can only hope for fair sentences for the suspects."
The incident is the second-worst fire-related tragedy involving private Islamic schools in Malaysia, after a 1989 case in Kedah's Taufiqiah Khairiah Al-Halimiah school in which 27 students were killed.
There were at least 211 fires at such schools across Malaysia between 2015 and this year, according to the Fire and Rescue Department.
Yesterday, a fire broke out in the hostel of an Islamic school in Negeri Sembilan. All 37 female students escaped unharmed.
After the Kuala Lumpur fire, the government formed a task force to formulate streamlined safety practices for private Islamic schools.
Prime Minister Najib Razak also announced that RM30 million (S$9.6 million) will be allocated to upgrade the infrastructure of these schools nationwide.
• Additional reporting by Nadirah H. Rodzi