The Philippines will seek a pardon from the Malaysian king to spare nine Filipinos from the gallows, after Malaysia’s highest court upheld death sentences for their roles in a deadly incursion in Sabah state in 2013, Philippine officials said Tuesday.
A five-member Federal Court panel sided unanimously Monday with a lower court’s decision last year to hand capital sentences to the nine.
They were charged with “waging war against the King of Malaysia” when some 200 gunmen from Sulu, a province in the southern Philippines, arrived by boat and occupied the coastline of neighboring Sabah before Malaysian forces put down the uprising and expelled them.
“The Philippine Government has extended legal and other forms of assistance to all of them … and will continue to extend assistance to them as their case progresses. The embassy legal team is now also initiating the appeal for clemency to the King,” the Office of the Undersecretary for Migrant Workers’ Affairs at the Department of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.
The standoff resulted in fighting that left 72 people dead, including 56 gunmen and 10 members of the Malaysian security forces. The gunmen claimed to be members of the “Royal Army of Sulu” who demanded that Malaysia recognize them as representatives of the Sulu Sultanate that used to rule Sabah.
Monday’s court decision means that only a royal pardon can save the nine Filipinos from execution.
N. Sivananthan, a Malaysian criminal lawyer who is being paid by the Philippine government to represent the nine, confirmed that Manila was moving to apply for a royal pardon in order to commute their death sentences to life terms in prison.
“Yes, we have received instructions to write for a royal pardon as the nine were not directly involved in the killings or in the battle against the Malaysian security forces,” Sivananthan told BenarNews on Tuesday, saying the instructions had come from the Philippine embassy.
“We expect to submit the pardon documents by February after getting full instructions, with support from the government of Philippines and Royal Sultanate of Sulu,” the attorney added.
Founded in 1405, the Sultanate of Sulu ruled the islands in the Sulu Archipelago, parts of Mindanao in the southern Philippines and parts of Borneo, including Sabah, until about the early 1800s. Sabah was incorporated into Malaysia in 1963, but the country still pays token rent to the Sulu Sultanate on an annual basis.
Many Filipinos migrated to Sabah during the 1970s to escape from armed conflict between government forces and secessionist guerrillas in the southern Philippines. About 800,000 Filipinos live in Sabah, whose population is more than 3.5 million.
Felipe Villamor in Manila contributed to this report.