The death of 23 students and teachers of the Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah tahfiz in Jalan Datuk Keramat in a fire has shocked the nation.
At the time of writing, City police Chief Comm Datuk Amar Singh has informed the public in a press conference that seven people aged between 11 and 18 have been arrested in connection with the fire.
It would appear that the suspects are mostly children, and according to the police the fire was a deliberate arson attack arising out of a disagreement between the suspects and some students from the tahfiz.
Yet, even before the press conference, alleged details and photos of the suspects were already circulated on WhatsApp and social media platforms.
Regardless of our own personal feelings about the tragedy, we must remind ourselves that at this juncture the seven teenagers are still just suspects. They are not even charged for any offence yet at the time of writing.
We must remember that most of them are still children in the eyes of the law.
The Child Act 2001, amongst others, provides for the rights of a child offender and the procedure when it comes to a criminal charge against a child.
According to the Act, a child who is alleged to have committed an offence shall not be arrested, detained or tried except in accordance with the Act.
When a child is charged in Court, the child will be charged and tried in a Court for Children. If the child is jointly charged with adults, the case may be heard by a Court other than a Court for Children, but that Court is to exercise all powers relating to the child as a Court for Children.
A Court for Children consists of a Magistrate who is assisted by two advisors, one of whom must be a woman. The role of the advisors is to inform and advise the Court for Children with respect to the child.
The Court for Children has the jurisdiction to try all offences except offences punishable by death. Unless the child suspects in the tahfiz fire case are charged with murder, it is likely that they will be charged and tried in the Court for Children.
There are also additional protections for a child offender at the stage of sentencing. The Court for Children must consider a probation report of the child. Child offenders also cannot be sentenced like an adult.
The Child Act prohibits the media when reporting about criminal investigations or prosecution of a child from publishing the photograph or reporting the name, address educational institution, or include any particulars that can lead to the identification the child.
The Act also prohibits the publication - which includes sharing on social media - photographs of any child suspect in a criminal investigation. Anyone contravening these provisions may be charged for an offence under the Act. Those who spread the photos and details of the child suspects in the tahfiz fire case may have committed an offence by doing so.
In any society, members have a responsibility to protect the weakest amongst the ranks. Children would most certainly fall within that category.
We may have our own personal thoughts about the guilt or innocence of the seven suspects, but at the end of the day the law must take its course and ensure that the rights of these suspects are not violated.