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Two Malaysian boys charged with murder over Islamic school fire

Two Malaysian teenagers have been charged with murder after a fire at an Islamic boarding school that killed 23 people, mostly students.

Prosecutor Othman Abdullah said on Thursday that no plea was taken from the two boys and the magistrate set a hearing for November 28.

The pair, who are accused of intentionally setting a fire, are minors and therefore will not face a possible death penalty, but Mr Abdullah could not confirm their exact ages.

They were among seven teenagers detained days after the September 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 memorise the Koran.

The blaze blocked the only exit to the dormitory, trapping students behind barred windows, killing two teachers and 21 students aged from six to 17.

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

Mr 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 relatives of the fire victims and journalists were ordered out of the courtroom before the teenagers were charged.

Mas Aliza Ali Bapoo, 22, said she hoped the court would 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 outside court.

"We want justice. We want appropriate punishment so that it will be a lesson for others."

Police 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 licence, and that a wall was illegally built on the top floor which blocked the victims from a second exit.

The court case comes amid reports that another tahfiz school for girls in southern Negeri Sembilan state was razed by a fire early on Thursday morning. The school's 37 students escaped but three suffered 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 blazes 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.

AP

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