Three Shia Muslims charged in an Islamic religious court with violating an edict that says only the Sunni branch of Islam can be promoted in Malaysia have been let off on technical grounds, potentially easing fears of further prosecution.
According to the men’s lawyer, Aminuddin Zulkipli, the judge found the wording used in the charge sheet filed by the prosecution defective. The judge discharged the men on Wednesday, but they have not been acquitted.
Their case is one of several others that have recently raised concerns and complaints from some Shiites that they are not allowed to freely practice their faith in Malaysia, where around two-thirds of the 28 million people are Muslim – the vast majority of them Sunni.
In September, Abdul Manap Abdul Hamid, Idris Mat Desa and Abu Bakar Ahmad, were arrested by religious authorities during separate raids on their homes in Perak state and found to have in their possession books and other items related to Shia teachings and practices.
All three men were later charged in the Sharia Lower Court for violating a 2012 edict – or fatwa – set by Perak’s local fatwa council. The men pleaded not guilty to all the charges.
The Perak fatwa echoes one issued by the National Fatwa Council in 1996, which says that Muslims in Malaysia should only follow Sunni teachings and prohibits the possession, publication or distribution of material contrary to those teachings. The fatwa has since been adopted by 11 of Malaysia’s 14 states.
On Feb. 12, the judge overseeing the case ruled that two of the charges – transgress and disobey – did not make clear what the accused were charged with and were thus defective, said Mr. Aminuddin. The judge has the power to instruct the prosecutor to amend the charges and then refile, though he did not.
The release of the three men comes just weeks after two other Shia followers arrested last August for violating the same fatwa were discharged on similar grounds. Another Shia arrested in Pahang state in September and charged for violating the fatwa, is still awaiting trial. He has pleaded not guilty.
Malaysia’s constitution names Islam as the state religion, but it does not differentiate between Sunni and Shiite and also includes clauses that honor religious freedom. Over the past year, however, there have been a growing number of legal actions taken against the Shia and other minority religions in the country.
Many Muslim scholars and government officials say they promote the Sunni branch of Islam as called for by a religious edict to keep peace between the two faiths.
“We can have differences of opinion when it comes to politics, but when it comes to the question of faith, we cannot,” as it could “break up the Muslim community,” the Minister of Home Affairs, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said during a press conference last December.
Mr. Ahmad, who has the power to ban books considered a threat to security, also acknowledged authorizing a ban on materials related to Shia Islam.
The recent series of raids and arrests, which began in August, eventually caught the attention of Shia Rights Watch, an independent religious rights organization based in Washington DC and dedicated to protecting Shia followers around the world.
On Dec. 15 the group appointed Dr. Mohd Faizal Musa, a fellow at the National University of Malaysia who has done extensive research on Shia Islam in Southeast Asia as its special rapporteur charged with monitoring respect for human rights in Malaysia.
Since his appointment, Dr. Faizal has met with Paul Low, the minister in the Prime Minister’s Department charged with human rights, to push for discussions between representatives of Malaysia’s minority Shia community and various religious and government officials.
Mr. Low acknowledged that such a meeting took place in December but has declined to comment further.
The same month, Othman Mustapha, the director-general of Malaysia’s Department of Islamic Development, part of the Prime Minister’s Department, told national news agency Bernama that the spread of Shia teachings in Malaysia was worrying.
“It is like a cancer that needs to be prevented from spreading in the best possible way, before it becomes worse – to the point of being a threat to Muslim unity,” he said.