Updated at 10:23 a.m. ET on 2019-12-18
A Malaysian court on Tuesday charged two men who were deported from Syria last month, accusing them of travelling to a foreign country to commit terrorist acts.
Mohamad Azmer Ramlan, 40, and Ahmad Naim Zaid, 34, were charged separately at the Sepang Sessions Court outside Kuala Lumpur – two years after they were arrested and detained by U.S.-backed forces who were then battling Islamic State (IS) militants in the Middle East.
Malaysian counter-terror officers arrested Mohamad Azmer and Ahmad Naim on Nov. 22 after they disembarked from their flight at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Both were detained under Malaysia’s Security Offenses (Special Measures) Act or SOSMA, a law introduced by the Muslim-majority nation in 2012 to battle militancy and security threats.
According to a senior government official, Mohamad Azmer held a master’s in engineering from the University of Oxford and the other man was a former doctorate student at the University of Malaya.
Prosecutors charged the duo under a section of the nation’s Penal Code. The two suspects, if convicted, face up to 30 years in prison and possible hefty fines.
“On March 11, 2015, you left Malaysia from Kuala Lumpur International Airport in the Sepang district of Selangor state for Syria with the intention to commit a terror act. Because of that, you have committed an offense,” the charge sheet said, referring to Ahmad Naim but without elaborating.
Mohamad Azmer, according to prosecutors, committed the same offense when he travelled to Syria in July 2014.
The duo were the first Malaysians to be deported home since Turkish forces crossed the Syrian border in October and launched an offensive against U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters who seized control of the last sliver of the Islamic State’s self-described caliphate early this year.
Mohamad Azmer is married to a Syrian woman with whom he has a child, the high-ranking source told BenarNews. He was deported to Malaysia while his wife and child were still believed to be in the Rojava refugee camp in northeastern Syria, the source said.
The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, also said that Ahmad Naim was deported along with his Malaysian wife and their two children.
Ahmad Naim’s wife was also detained under the 2015 Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), according to the source.
Defense lawyer Hamdan Hamzah told the judge that his client, Mohamad Azmer, intended to plead guilty. He urged the judge to expedite the case’s transfer to the High Court, which has final jurisdiction over the case.
“The accused had been to Syria. That is the crux of the charge,” Hamdan told Judge Saifuakmal Mohd Said. “The accused intents to plead guilty at the High Court.”
Hamdan also said Mohamad Azmer had shown remorse while in Syria by surrendering himself, along with his Kurdish-Arab wife and son, to the local authorities two years ago. Mohamad Azmer was imprisoned, while his wife and child were sent to a refugee camp, the lawyer said.
To prove that his client had long since repented while in prison, Hamdan read letters that he said were written by Mohamad Azmer to the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement (IRCRC) and to his father, explaining his situation and asking for assistance to be repatriated to his homeland.
“Clearly, the accused had repented and is very hopeful that he will be reunited with his wife and child. His wife is not a terrorist, she was sent to a refugee camp and not jail,” Hamdan said.
Judge Saifulakmal declined to consider the defense attorney’s request for bail, saying that it should be brought to the High Court instead of the Sessions Court. He also scheduled the next hearing for Jan. 10.
In a separate courtroom, Ahmad Naim nodded as he heard the charges against him in front of Judge Tengku Shahrizam Tuan Lah. He said would not be represented by a lawyer, and the judge set Jan. 20 for his next hearing.
Mohamad Azmer and Ahmad Naim were separately arrested in 2017 by Syrian Democratic Forces and held at the Shirkin Prison in Qamishli, a city adjoining the Turkish city of Nusaybin, the source told BenarNews.
More than 55,000 suspected militants and their family members have been swept up and taken to detention centers since IS lost control of its territory, according to the United Nations. About 11,000 family members of fighters from almost 50 countries are being held at the Al Hol camp in northeastern Syria “in deeply sub-standard conditions,” the U.N. said.
About 50 of those detainees who fought for IS are Malaysians, officials said.
Malaysian authorities have arrested 495 people linked to alleged terror activities since 2013, according to government figures compiled by BenarNews. Dozens have been freed but no clear number is available.
CORRECTION: An earlier version incorrectly stated that the judge rejected the petition for bail.