A Kuala Lumpur Malaysian court convicted Muslims on July 27, 2010. One Muslim was sentenced to a week in prison and 12 Muslims were fined for illegally protesting the construction of a Hindu temple and parading a severed cow’s head.
Sedition, defined as promoting hostility between races, is punishable by up to three years in prison and a fine.
The protest last August stoked tensions among Malaysia’s three main ethnic groups, the Malay Muslim majority and Chinese and Indian minorities, most of them Buddhists, Christians or Hindus who have complained that their religious rights are often sidelined in favour of Islam.
The 12 men were among a herd of Muslims who marched with a bloodied cow’s head from a mosque to the central Selangor state chief minister’s office on Aug. 28, 2009 to denounce the state government’s plan to build a Hindu temple in their largely Muslim neighbourhood.
The cow is the most sacred animal in Hinduism. Some of the protesters stomped and spat on the head and made fiery speeches that deeply offended Hindus.
Defence lawyer Afifuddin Hafifi stated all 12 pleaded guilty in a Selangor district court Tuesday to a charge of illegal assembly and were fined 1,000 ringgit ($320) each. They faced up to a year in prison and a fine for the charge.
Two of them who brought and stepped on the cow’s head also pleaded guilty to sedition. Both were fined an additional 3,000 ringgit ($960), and one was sentenced to a week in prison, Afifuddin said.
The conflict highlighted frustrations among minorities about strict government guidelines that restrict the number of non-Muslim places of worship, partly based on whether enough non-Muslims live where a church or temple is to be built.
Authorities in Selangor eventually found a new site to build the controversial temple.
A. Vaithilingam, a Malaysian Hindu religious leader, raised concerns that the penalties imposed by the court might appear inadequate to some Hindus. “The sentences seem to be very light after the huge commotion and the insult,” he stated. The men’s actions “stirred up the emotions throughout the country. This could have caused a riot.”
The protest was among the most high-profile in a string of interfaith disputes in recent years that threatened decades of harmonious ties between Malays, who make up nearly two-thirds of Malaysia’s 28 million people, and ethnic minorities.
Early this year, a string of firebomb attacks and vandalism hit mostly non-Muslim places of worship following a court verdict that allowed Christians to use “Allah” in Malay-language publications.
Some Muslim Malaysians insist the non-Muslim use of “Allah” would confuse Muslims and tempt them into converting. Minorities say this is an example of institutionalized religious discrimination, but the government denies any bias.