(New York, August 4, 2005)—In its persecution of the Sky Kingdom, the Malaysian government is now denying members of the religious community basic due process rights, Human Rights Watch said today. Sky Kingdom members who will appear today before a Shariah court in Terrengganu province on charges of practicing a “deviant religion” do not have legal defense counsel or the opportunity to prepare a defense. On July 31, government officials violated a court order by demolishing the community’s religious structures.
Forty-nine members of the Sky Kingdom are charged with violating Islamic precepts under section 10 of Malaysia’s Shariah Criminal Offenses Enactment 2001. If convicted, they could be fined and jailed up to two years.
“The Malaysian government is targeting this religious community simply for their beliefs,” said Sam Zarifi, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government is violating international standards by destroying the Sky Kingdom’s religious structures and now threatening to throw the members in jail without a fair trial.”
Lawyers from Terrengganu province who are accredited to appear in Shariah (Islamic law) courts have refused to represent Sky Kingdom members. At least some of them have expressed fears of reprisal from religious extremists or loss of their accreditation. A Shariah lawyer from Selangor, appointed by the Malaysian Bar Council, will inform the Shariah court on August 4 that the Sky Kingdom defendants have no legal representation.
Malaysia’s federal constitution recognizes three parallel court systems—civil, shariah, and, in the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak, native courts. Shariah is a state matter under the Federal Constitution. Shariah courts have jurisdiction over persons professing the religion of Islam in matters of personal and family law, including offenses such as apostasy, blasphemy and heresy.
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“Due process rights cannot be selectively enforced. The Terengganu Shariah court must enforce the right to a fair trial enshrined international law,” Zarifi said. “The right to counsel to prepare a defense in a penal proceeding is an integral component of a fair trial and a fundamental mandate of international human rights law.”
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides that “[e]veryone charged with a penal offense has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to the law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defense.” Legal representation is an essential component of defense for anyone facing penal sanctions, including those under shariah law.
The Sky Kingdom was founded by Ayah Pin (whose real name is Ariffin Muhammad), who claims to be the reincarnation of the holy figures of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam. The community was one of 22 declared as “deviant sects of Islam” by the Malaysian government last month.
On July 31, officials from the land office, state religious affairs department, and the police began demolishing religious structures—including a giant teapot and an umbrella-shaped building—at the Sky Kingdom compound in Terangganu. The destruction commenced despite a ruling staying the demolition by the Kuala Terengganu High Court on June 21.
On July 18, a mob composed of 30 to 35 individuals, who were masked and dressed in robes, launched a pre-dawn attack on the Sky Kingdom. The mob reportedly tossed Molotov cocktails, slashed car tires with machetes, broke the windows of several homes, and partially scorched religious structures. Malaysian police have failed to arrest anyone involved in the attack. Instead, 58 members of the religious group, including 30 women and five children, were arrested on July 20 by the state religious affairs department and the local police.