A Malaysian court on Thursday charged two teenagers with 23 counts of murder for allegedly causing a fire that killed 21 students and two teachers at an Islamic school in Kuala Lumpur two weeks ago.
The two 16-year-old suspects haven’t entered a plea in the blaze that engulfed the third-floor dormitory of the Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah School on Sept. 14, prosecutors said.
The two boys and four other teenage suspects were also charged with drug-related offenses at the Kuala Lumpur Magistrate’s Court. A seventh suspect was released from custody without charge due to a lack of evidence against him.
Thursday’s proceedings took place behind closed doors and only family members of the accused were allowed inside the courtroom.
In Malaysia, a murder charge carries a death sentence, but in cases involving juveniles, the maximum penalty is life imprisonment.
Magistrate Siti Radziah Kamaruddin set Nov. 28 for sentencing, while the court awaited reports from the state’s chemistry and welfare departments.
Malaysian police earlier said that the seven boys had deliberately set fire at the school, which is classified as a “tahfiz” center where students learn to memorize the Quran.
Thirty-six students and six teachers were staying at the school when the fire broke out. The victims, boys aged 16 years or younger, and two school staff members were trapped behind barred windows and a locked door, fire officials said. They said the school did not have a fire safety permit and occupational certificate.
The father of one of the survivors, Sharifuddin Musa, said he wanted to see the court proceedings on Thursday, but was not allowed in by court officials.
“I can forgive, but I am also sad about what had happened. Other family members and I can only hope for fair sentences being passed on these suspects,” he told reporters.
The mother of 12-year-old Nik Mohd Ridzuan, who died in the blaze, also tried to enter the courtroom.
“I just want to see the faces of those who are responsible for the incident,” she said.
‘I feel nothing at the moment’
After hearing the murder charges read out, Mas Aliza Ali Bapoo, a cousin of three orphans who were killed in the fire – Muhammad Shafiq Haikal, 13, Muhammad Hafiz Iskandar, 11, and Muhammad Harris Ikhwan, 10 – said she felt numb.
“I feel nothing at the moment. I feel empty,” she told reporters.
Six of the seven suspects tested positive for drugs after their arrests on Sept. 15, police said.
Investigators said the suspects had been involved in a “misunderstanding” with students at the school. The boys were allegedly caught on closed-circuit TV recordings loitering outside the school before the early morning fire started.
The two murder suspects pleaded guilty to drug-related charges. Three others pled not guilty, while another suspect admitted guilt to the same drug charges.
On Wednesday, Noor Rashid Ibrahim, the police deputy inspector-general, told reporters that not all suspects were directly involved in the alleged arson.
The fire prompted calls for a nationwide investigation of tahfiz schools after Malaysian newspapers reported that more than 200 fires had been reported at private religious schools across the country during the past two years.
The Star newspaper said there were 519 private tahfiz schools registered nationwide as of April, but many more are believed to be unregistered.
Malaysia’s Fire and Rescue Department concluded two weeks ago that arson caused the fire. It said firefighters had found two cooking gas cylinders which were placed at the door of the school’s dormitory and prevented the victims from escaping.
As the fire engulfed the dormitory, witnesses reported being awoken by cries for help. Firefighters said they found the charred bodies piled on top of each other, indicating that the victims tried to flee, but were trapped by metal window grills.
“From our investigations, we believe it was due to taunting between the suspects and several of the tahfiz students a few days before the fire,” Kuala Lumpur Police Chief Amar Singh Ishar Singh told reporters.