Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - A court in Malaysia Friday sentenced three members of a militant Muslim group to death and another 16 to life imprisonment for planning a "holy war" to overthrow the government and set up an Islamic state.
The High Court in Kuala Lumpur handed down the death penalty to Mohamed Amin Mohamed Razali, a former army private and leader of a group called al-Ma'unah, and to two of his followers.
Sentencing of the 19 militants came 15 months after al-Ma'unah ("brotherhood of inner power") sparked Malaysia's biggest security alert in decades, carrying out a daring arms heist, and then killing two hostages before surrendering to security forces.
The episode shocked a nation, which has long enjoyed a reputation abroad as a model, moderate Muslim state. Malaysians generally regard the group as a deviant cult, and allegations of links with more mainstream Muslim organizations have not be proven.
Judge Zulkefli Ahmad Makinudin said he was satisfied the guilt of the 19 had been established, and rejected claims by some of the accused that they had been forced by Mohamed Amin, 30, into taking part in the conspiracy.
Noting that some members had earlier left the group without harm, the judge said any of the accused could have done the same, had they wished.
The fact they had not done so "showed that the accused had common intention with Mohamed Amin in his struggle," he added.
One of the men told the court, weeping, that he had joined to learn more about Islam, but had later lost the ability to think clearly. Others argued in mitigation that they had not themselves fired any weapons or acted violently, had been unable to leave, and in several cases, had just happened to be in the area when the incident occurred. Mohamed Amin himself chose not to speak.
Disguised as soldiers, members of his group managed to steal more than 100 weapons from two armories in the north of the country. Then they fled to a jungle base, from where they broadcast calls over stolen army radio for Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to resign.
A policeman and a soldier held hostage were murdered before the group surrendered, ending a four-day standoff with thousands of troops. One al-Ma'unah member was also killed.
The 19 convicted men range in age from 26 to 52, with most in their 40s. They include a military officer and a former policeman with 10 years' service.
Ten other members were earlier jailed for 10 years each after pleading guilty to a lesser charge of preparing to wage war.
Terrorist outfit or obscure cult?
Because of Al-Ma'unah's interest in the paranormal and martial arts, many Malaysians suggested it should fall under the cult label rather than be seen as a serious terrorist group.
Members were persuaded that they had mystical powers, which would make them invulnerable to bullets, fire or sharp objects.
On its Internet website, al-Ma'unah describes itself as a non-governmental organization "involved in the teaching of martial arts, particularly the development of one's inner power and the practice of Islamic traditional medicine."
It claims to have more than 1,000 members in Malaysia as well as in Brunei, Singapore, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
But recruits were also shown video footage of "jihad warriors" battling Christians in parts of neighboring Indonesia, and the website carries a link to a prominent jihad website, which extols "holy war" in Afghanistan, Chechnya and elsewhere.
It remains unclear whether the group is linked into any wider terrorist network. Prof. Clive Kessler of the University of New South Wales in Australia recalled that while al-Ma'unah wasn't taken particularly seriously, "there was talk at the time that this was part of some wider, Middle East-based network of Muslim activists, which in retrospect - rightly or wrongly - people are now putting into the al-Qaeda context."
The U.S. State Department earlier this month placed al-Ma'unah on a "terrorist exclusion list" of 39 organizations, whose members can be excluded from entry into the U.S. or deported from the country if found within its borders.
After the al-Ma'unah incident, some political opponents accused Prime Minister Mahathir of trying to link an obscure group with a Muslim opposition party, Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS), in a bid to discredit it.
Similar accusations were made when the government arrested member of another militant Malaysian group, the KMM (Kumpulan Militan Malaysia), earlier this year.
In the case of KMM, however, close links with the PAS are evident. One of 16 alleged KMM members detained without trial since August is the son of the spiritual leader of PAS. They are accused of involvement in a spate of attacks on churches and a Hindu temple.
The PAS is pushing for a stricter adherence to Islamic norms in Muslim-majority but multi-cultural Malaysia.
On Thursday, meanwhile, Mahathir warned ulamas (religious leaders) who were involved in politics that they should not misinterpret Islamic teachings in such a way that had negative repercussions for Muslims.
"It has been observed that when such ulamas get involved in politics, a large section of the masses is led astray into ignoring the teachings of Islam and believing that they are holier than other Muslims," he told reporters.
Mahathir is expected to dedicate some of his New Year message, to be broadcast to the nation, to the subject of "deviant teachings and ulamas," Kuala Lumpur press reported Friday.
Earlier this month senior clerics ended a special conference to discuss the situation in Afghanistan by calling on Malaysian Muslims to wage jihad to defend their co-religionists in Afghanistan or anywhere else where they were under attack from the enemies of Islam.
All Muslims were obliged to participate in the jihad physically or by contributing financially, the clerics said.