KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia–Forty-five members of a banned religious sect were charged Thursday with violating Islam, but Malaysian lawyers refused to defend them fearing a backlash from conservative Muslims and authorities, officials said.
The 45 members of the Sky Kingdom sect, including 23 women, appeared in an Islamic court in the eastern state of Terengganu and told the judge they had no lawyers, said a court official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Judge Mohamad Abdullah postponed the trial to Sept. 1 to give the defendants _ who are all free on bail, except for one who was also being detained for another charge _ more time to engage lawyers, the official said.
If found guilty of spreading beliefs contrary to Islam and violating Islamic precepts, they could be jailed for up to two years under Malaysia’s Islamic laws that apply only to Muslims in this multiracial country.
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Haris Fathillah, a lawyer based in Kuala Lumpur, said he was trying to get Muslim lawyers accredited with religious authorities in Terengganu to defend the Sky Kingdom followers but there was “reluctance due to the nature of the case.” He would not elaborate.
An official with the Malaysian Bar Council said “there is fear among them of a backlash from the Muslim community if they take up the case.” The issue is “extremely sensitive for Muslims,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The Sky Kingdom sect, which has a commune in Terengganu, is believed to have hundreds of mostly ethnic Malay Muslim members. The sect claims to have followers from other religions as well and says it promotes interfaith harmony.
But the government, ever sensitive to Malays abandoning mainstream Islam, banned the group on the grounds that it was preaching a deviant form of the religion. On Sunday, authorities tore down a house-sized teapot, umbrella and boat _ objects representing various faiths _ in the Sky Kingdom’s commune.
In a statement, Human Rights Watch slammed the Malaysian government for “targeting this religious community simply for their beliefs.”
Sam Zarifi, the organization’s Asia deputy director, said in the statement that “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.”
He said Muslim Malaysian lawyers also feared “reprisals from religious extremists and loss of their accreditation” if they defended the Sky Kingdom followers.
A mob of about 30 people who were allegedly upset with the sect’s teachings attacked its commune last month, setting fire to some of the structures. No injuries were reported, but the sect’s leader, Ariffin Mohammed who is also known as Ayah Pin, has disappeared since the incident.