Malaysian authorities have arrested seven youth suspected of intentionally starting a deadly blaze at an Islamic boarding school that killed 23 people, police say.
- Twenty-one students and two teachers died in the blaze after the fire blocked the only exit from the dormitory
- Housing Minister says wall not included on school’s original plan separated victims from second exit
- The seven youths were aged between 11 and 18, and six of them had drugs in their system
Kuala Lumpur police chief Amar Singh said the seven arrested boys lit Thursday’s fire because they had been mocked by students at the school.
The boys were aged 11 to 18, and six of them had tested positive for drugs, Mr Singh said at a press conference.
They were detained on Friday night (local time) after investigators obtained CCTV footage from a neighbouring building.
Two of the boys had been detained before, one on charges of vehicle theft, another for rioting, Mr Singh said.
He gave no additional details on how the suspects had allegedly been mocked by students in the dormitory.
Asked if the suspects had planned to kill the victims, Mr Singh said: “Intention was to burn, but it could be because of their age or because of their maturity levels, perhaps they may not have known that it would cause deaths.”
The blaze at a three-story “tahfiz” school, where Muslim boys study and memorise the Koran, blocked the lone exit to a school dormitory, trapping students behind barred windows.
Firefighters recovered the charred bodies of 21 boys aged between 13 and 17, and two teachers.
Fourteen other students and four teachers were rescued.
At the time, authorities said a electrical short circuit was believed to have caused the fire.
Victims’ bodies found huddled together
Firefighters heard shouts for help when they arrived at the school, officials said.
They found 13 bodies huddled in a pile on the right corner of the dormitory, another eight on the left corner of the dormitory and one in the middle, near the staircase.
Nearby resident Nurhayati Abdul Halim told local media she saw the boys crying and screaming for help when the fire broke out.
“I saw their little hands out of the grilled windows, crying for help,” she said.
“I heard their screams and cries but I could not do anything.”
The fire renewed calls for better regulation of religious schools, after officials raised concerns over a wall separating the victims from a second exit which was not on the school’s original architectural plan.
Malaysia’s Minister for Housing Noh Omar said the school’s plan included an open top floor that allowed access to two staircases, but that a wall had been built dividing the floor, leaving just one exit for the dormitory.
The school had submitted an application for a fire safety permit that had not been approved, he said.
Religious schools, mostly privately run, are not supervised by the Education Ministry because they come under the purview of state religious authorities.
Local media reported there were more than 500 registered tahfiz schools nationwide, but many more were believed to be unregistered.
Data from the fire department showed 1,083 fires struck religious schools in the past two years — 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 a fire gutted the school and eight wooden hostels.