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Islamic Radicals Given Death Penalty for Plan to Topple Malaysian Government - 2001-12-28

In Malaysia, a judge has sentenced three leaders of an Islamic radical sect to death and 16 others to life in prison for their role in an armed revolt last year. Prosecutors had sought the death penalty for all 19 defendants. High Court Judge Zilkefli Ahmad Makinudin handed down the sentences Friday before a packed gallery in Kuala Lumpur.

He sentenced the leader of Al-Ma'unah sect, Mohamed Amin Razali, and two lieutenants to death by hanging, saying he found all of the accused directly or indirectly involved in the sect's plan to topple the government by violent means. The death sentences are automatically appealed to the Federal Court.

The 16 other defendants were given life sentences without parole. The judge said he could not imagine the consequences for the people of multi-racial Malaysia, had the group succeeded in carrying out its objectives. Defense lawyers earlier pleaded for leniency, and several of the defendants had begged for mercy.

The judge Thursday convicted the 19 of waging war to install an Islamic state in Malaysia. Ten other group members were imprisoned for 10 years earlier this year, after being convicted on lesser charges of preparing to wage war.

In July last year, the defendants entered two military camps by posing as army officers, and stole rifles and thousands of rounds of ammunition.

They took hostages and fled into the forests of Perak state, several hundred kilometers north of Kuala Lumpur. They killed two of the hostages, before surrendering after a four-day standoff.

The Al-Ma'unah group says it was fighting on behalf of suppressed Muslims, and claims to possess mystical powers. The group is not known to have links to other extremist groups or terrorist organizations and has been characterized as a cult. Nevertheless, the incident embarrassed the government and triggered a crackdown on other Islamist groups.

Authorities this year arrested more than a dozen people whom it accused of belonging to the Malaysian Mujahedin, which is accused of seeking to establish an Islamic state in Southeast Asia. The government says some members of the group received military training in Afghanistan. Among those detained is the son of the spiritual leader of the Pan Malaysia Islamic Party, the leading opposition party in the country.