A Malaysian court on Tuesday acquitted a teenage suspect but ordered another to enter his defense in an arson case that killed 23 people at an Islamic boarding school in Kuala Lumpur three years ago.
Azman Abdullah, a Kuala Lumpur High Court judge, ruled that the prosecution had established enough evidence to prove its case against one of the two defendants, both 19-year-old males.
“The court has made a decision that the prosecution was only able to prove a prima facie case against the first accused on all charges. Meanwhile, the second accused is acquitted,” Azman said in handing down the verdict. “With this, I order the first accused to enter his defense on all 23 charges.”
The two defendants broke down in tears after hearing the verdict.
“I have no plans but I’m grateful for this. I’m a bit upset that my friend could not walk free,” the freed teen told reporters outside the courtroom.
The blaze broke out before dawn on Sept. 14, 2017, at the three-story Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah, a madrassa where Muslim boys study and memorize the Koran.
Two teachers and 21 students, aged 6 to 16, were killed in the fire that trapped them behind barred windows and a locked door, officials said. Firefighters found the bodies piled up and charred beyond recognition.
The blaze caused outrage on social media and led to calls for better regulation of religious schools, which are mostly privately run and not supervised by Malaysia’s Ministry of Education.
Within days of the disaster, Malaysian authorities announced the arrests of seven suspects and declared a motive: Revenge.
“The motive was to cause a fire, not to kill. It was also prompted by mocking,” Kuala Lumpur police chief Amar Singh said then during a televised news conference. “It was likely that they were under the influence when they allegedly committed the offense.”
Singh did not elaborate. Police later filed murder charges against the two teens.
If the court convicts him of murder, the remaining teen could face life imprisonment. In Malaysia, a murder charge carries a mandatory death penalty, but minors may only be sentenced to life behind bars.
On Tuesday, the court ordered the trial’s defense stage to start on March 2.
Juriani Tumin, the father of the acquitted teen, expressed gratitude over the court’s decision.
“I thank Allah for this. Maybe after this, my son will continue his studies,” Juriani told reporters outside the courtroom. “He will be a better person.”
The mother of the other teen, who asked that her name not be used, expressed disappointment as she spoke to BenarNews outside the courtroom.
“I did not expect this outcome,” she said. “Of course, I’m upset that my son is not off the hook while his friend walked free.”
Tuesday’s verdict brought mixed feelings for the mother of one of the victims.
Businesswoman Hartini Abd Ghani, whose 12-year-old son, Nik Muhammad Ridzuan Nik Azlan, died in the fire, said she would appeal the court’s decision or move for a retrial.
“There must be reasons for the court to make that decision, but I will discuss with my lawyer to see if there are venues for appeal or a retrial,” she told BenarNews in a phone interview.
“Those responsible for the loss of 23 lives must be found. That’s the fact – 23 lives have been lost, but it wouldn't have happened if someone didn’t start the fire,” she said.