2 Malaysian boys charged with murder for Islamic school fire

Mother of the fire victim Hartini Abdul Ghani, center, speaks to journalists during the court hearing at a court house in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017. Two Malaysian teenagers have been charged with murder after being accused of intentionally setting a fire at an Islamic boarding school that killed 23 people, mostly students. (AP Photo/Daniel Chan)

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Two Malaysian teenagers were charged Thursday with murder after being accused of intentionally setting fire at an Islamic boarding school that killed 23 people, mostly students.

The accused boys are minors but prosecutor Othman Abdullah said he couldn't immediately provide their exact ages. Because of their age, they will not face a possible death penalty. Othman said no plea was taken from the two boys and the magistrate set a hearing for Nov. 28.

They were among seven teenagers detained days after the Sept. 14 blaze for allegedly using cooking gas tanks and petrol to set fire to a dormitory on the top floor of the 'tahfiz' school, where Muslim students learn to memorize the Quran. The blaze blocked the lone exit to the dormitory, trapping students behind barred windows, killing two teachers and 21 students from age 6 to 17.

Police have said the suspects sought revenge after allegedly being teased by some tahfiz students a few days before the fire.

Othman said the two murder suspects, plus four other boys who were detained, have been charged with drug abuse. One of the seven has been released due to lack of evidence, he added.

Several family members of the fire victims and journalists were shooed out of the court room before the teens were charged.

Mas Aliza Ali Bapoo, 22, said she hopes the court will mete out justice for her three cousins who died in the blaze. The three boys — aged 13, 11 and 10 — joined the school in January, she said.

"We want justice. We want appropriate punishment so that it will be a lesson for others," she said outside the courtroom.

Police have said the school is also being investigated for flouting building safety rules. Officials have said the school was operating without a fire safety permit and license, and that a wall was illegally built on the top floor that blocked the victims from a second exit.

The court case comes amid reports Thursday that another tahfiz school for girls in southern Negeri Sembilan state was razed by an early morning fire. The school's 37 students escaped but three students had breathing difficulties, local media reported.

The fires have renewed calls for better regulation of religious schools, mostly privately run and not supervised by the Education Ministry because they come under the purview of state religious authorities. Local media reported there are more than 500 registered tahfiz schools nationwide but many more are believed to be unregistered.

Data from the Fire Department showed that 1,083 fires struck religious schools in the past two years, of which 211 were burned to the ground. The worst disaster occurred in 1989 when 27 female students at an Islamic school in Kedah state died when fire gutted the school and eight wooden hostels.

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