Tahfiz fire murder appeals: Court upholds jail sentence of one youth, acquittal of another

PUTRAJAYA: The Court of Appeal has upheld the prison sentence on the youth found guilty of killing 23 people in a fire at the Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah Tahfiz Centre in 2017.

It also upheld the acquittal of another youth charged in the same incident.

The three-judge panel chaired by Justice Datuk Abu Bakar Jais who sat together with Justices Datuk Che Mohd Ruzima Ghazali and Datuk See Mee Chun made both decisions unanimously on Monday (Sept 11).

On Aug 17, 2020, the first teenager, now 22, was convicted by the High Court for the murders and ordered to be detained at the pleasure of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong.

ALSO READ: Verdict in tahfiz fire murder appeals rescheduled to Sept 11

At the same time, the High Court acquitted and discharged the other teenager, also aged 22 now, for the same offence without calling him to enter his defence.

The convicted youth subsequently filed an appeal against the conviction while the prosecution appealed against the acquittal of the second accused.

Justice Che Mohd Ruzima, in reading the judgment, said the High Court’s decision must be upheld as it did not err in its decision to convict and sentence the accused.

Ruzima said the panel agreed with the High Court findings on closed-circuit television (CCTV) footage which decided the evidence presented by the prosecution was strong.

The CCTV footage from four different locations, namely a nearby Muslim Consumers Association of Malaysia (PPIM) office, a petrol station, snooker centre, and the appellant’s neighbour proved that he (the appellant) was involved in causing the fire intentionally.

“It (the CCTV) only points to one direction which is that PKK1 (the appellant) climbed over the back fence of the tahfiz school together with an unidentified individual to start the fire, causing 23 deaths.

“With that the appellant’s appeal is rejected since there was no argument presented by the defence regarding the sentence (jail) issued by the High Court, so the decision is upheld,” he said.

On the Court of Appeal's decision on the appeal by the prosecution, Justice Che Mohd Ruzima said there was no reason to change the High Court's acquittal of the co-accused.

ALSO READ: Teen convicted for tahfiz fire deaths

The High Court verdict found it was difficult to ascertain that the co-accused was present at the scene during the particular time of the fire based on testimonies of prosecution witnesses and CCTV footage, he said.

“The decision... to release and acquit PKK2 (the co-accused) of all 23 charges at the end of the prosecution case is correct in terms of facts and law.

“Therefore, the prosecutor’s appeal is without merit and should be rejected, the decision of the High Court is upheld,” he said.

On May 11 this year, in appealing against the acquittal, deputy public prosecutor How May Ling argued that the fire must have been caused by more than one perpetrator because it was impossible for a teenager to lift two gas cylinders weighing 28kg at one go.

How said one gas cylinder was placed vertically and the other horizontally in front of a door before petrol was poured and an active lighter was placed there.

Haijan Omar, counsel for both the accused, argued that there were no witnesses who testified that the convicted youth had set the school on fire, adding that the prosecution only relied on circumstantial evidence.

The prosecution called a total of 71 witnesses, while six defence witnesses were called to testify throughout the trial which began on May 30, 2018.

According to the original charges, both teenagers, together with another unidentified individual, were accused of murdering and causing the death of 23 people – 21 students and two teachers – at the tahfiz centre at Jalan Keramat Hujung, Kampung Datuk Keramat, Wangsa Maju here, between 4.15am and 6.45am on Sept 14, 2017.

They were charged under Section 302 of the Penal Code for murder, read together with Section 34, which provides for the mandatory death penalty upon conviction.

However, Section 97(1) of the Children's Act 2001 provides that offenders under the age of 18 cannot be subjected to the death penalty, which can be replaced with a prison sentence as long as the Yang di-Pertuan Agong approves, in accordance with Section 97(2) of the same Act.

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