Malaysian prosecutors charged eight Filipino men with terrorism-related offenses on Wednesday following an armed siege in Borneo that killed 71 people.
The eight are the first to face charges after an estimated 200 members of a Filipino Muslim clan slipped into Malaysia’s Sabah state last month and took over a village to highlight their long-dormant territorial claim to the timber-rich state.
Subsequent firefights killed 62 clansmen and nine Malaysian police and army personnel, according to Malaysia’s government. Some of the surviving Filipinos are believed to have fled back to the neighbouring southern Philippines, while a few dozen are allegedly hiding on palm oil plantation land in Sabah.
Government prosecutors on Wednesday charged eight suspects in Sabah with waging war against Malaysia’s king and harbouring people who commit terrorist acts. The first offense carries a possible death penalty and the other imposes a maximum of life imprisonment on conviction.
It was not clear whether the suspects were clansmen who had been captured or other Filipinos believed to have abetted them in Sabah, which is home to about 800,000 Filipino settlers.
The men, whose ages ranged from 17 to 66, did not enter a plea, and no further hearing dates were immediately scheduled as the case was being transferred from a Sabah district court to a higher court, the Malaysian national news agency Bernama reported.
In Manila, Abraham Idjirani, a spokesman for the Philippine Muslim clan, condemned the filing of terrorism-related charges against the Filipinos, saying Malaysian prosecutors have not fully disclosed the evidence used in the complaints against the suspects. He said that he feared the rights of the Filipinos were being violated and that there was a lack of transparency in the handling of their cases.
“In the first place, these Filipinos, if indeed they were involved, were just defending their rights because Sabah belongs to the sultanate and the Filipino people and Malaysia is just the administrator,” Mr. Idjirani said.
Malaysian and Philippine authorities had sought for weeks to end the siege peacefully by urging the clansmen to leave without facing charges. But a fatal shooting of two policemen by the Filipinos on March 1 prompted Malaysia to launch airstrikes and mortar attacks that drove the clansmen out of the remote coastal village.
Malaysia has detained more than 300 mostly Filipino suspects in recent weeks on suspicion of having been informants for the clansmen and other offenses, including unlawful possession of weapons and illegal entry into Sabah.
The clansmen’s leaders in the Philippines say Sabah is rightfully theirs because the territory belonged to their royal sultanate for centuries before colonial rule. Sabah has been part of Malaysia since 1963, and many Filipinos have come there in recent decades to escape poverty and a long-running Muslim insurgency in the southern Philippines.