A court in eastern Malaysia on Tuesday sentenced nine Filipinos to life in prison for playing major roles in a deadly incursion by an armed group from the nearby southern Philippines three years ago, according to local reports.
The Kota Kinabalu High Court also handed jail sentences ranging from 10 to 15 years to five other Filipinos and three Malaysians, whom it convicted on terrorism-related charges for lesser roles in the incursion mounted along the coastline of Sabah state by the group known as the Royal Army of Sulu, reports said.
A special session of the high court, which sat at the state prison in Kepayan, had convicted the 17 defendants a day earlier for their roles in “waging war” against the Malaysian king (Yang di-Pertuan Agong). Royal Sulu Army members, who identified themselves as followers of the self-proclaimed Sultan of Sulu, Jamalul Kiram III, launched the incursion into Malaysian territory on Borneo island, which lasted from February to March 2013.
Datu Amirbahar Hushin Kiram, the nephew of the late sultan, was among the nine Filipinos who received life sentences and were spared the death penalty at the end of a trial that began in January 2014.
The court’s ruling nonetheless sends a strong message that any encroachment on Malaysia’s sovereign territory will be punished severely, according to a Sabah-based security analyst.
“It is our absolute right to protect our sovereignty. The actions and decision taken [by the court] is all about protecting and safeguarding the well-being of the country and its people,” Zaini Othman, who directs the Strategic and Security Research Center at Universiti Malaysia Sabah, told BenarNews.
In 2013, Malaysian security forces put down the incursion by some 200 fighters who had traveled by boat from Sulu – a neighboring province in the southern Philippines.
Seventy-two people, including 56 Sulu gunmen, 10 members of the Malaysian security forces and six civilians were killed in fighting spread over several weeks.
The Filipino group demanded to be recognized as representatives of the Sulu Sultanate that used to rule Sabah. In the past the sultanate was spread over several southern Philippine islands and parts of Borneo, including Sabah before it became a British protectorate in the 19th century. Sabah was incorporated into Malaysia in 1963, but the country still pays token rent to the Sulu Sultanate on an annual basis.
Two months ago, Malaysian authorities announced the arrests of another 22 people, including 12 foreigners, suspected of being linked to the crushed incursion. The 22 suspects are being held indefinitely without trial under Malaysia’s Security Offences (Special Measures) Act, reports said.
Filipinos spared death penalty
In handing down sentences on Tuesday against the nine Filipinos who had faced the prospect of being put to death for their roles in the incursion, Justice Stephen Chung Hian Guan said there was no evidence that the defendants were directly involved in the skirmishes in Sabah or that any of them had killed members of the Malaysian security forces.
The state-run Bernama news agency quoted the judge as lamenting the fact that the two suspected masterminds of the incursion, Datu Agbimuddin Kiram and “General Musa,” were never arrested over the case.
The nine Filipinos were also sentenced separately to between 13 and 18 years on terrorism-related charges, and will serve their two sentences concurrently, local reports said.
On Monday, the court acquitted a Filipino national, Basil Samiul, 35, of charges of supporting and soliciting a terrorist group. Another Filipino defendant, Hadil Suhaili, 68, died of illness on April 23 while in Malaysian custody, reports said.