Two Malaysian filmmakers have appeared in court charged with deliberately “wounding the religious feelings of others” with their now-banned independent film Mentega Terbang (Butterfly).
Director Khairi Anwar and producer Tan Meng Kheng pleaded not guilty to the charge, which carries a jail term of as long as one year as well as a possible fine, when they appeared in separate courts in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday, according to Malaysian online media.
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Magistrates Noorelynna Hanim Abd Halim and Aina Azahra Arifin allowed the two men conditional bail and imposed a gag order to prevent them from speaking about the case.
Mentega Terbang was released on streaming channels in 2021 and is a coming-of-age story about a Malay Muslim teenage girl who begins to explore religion and the question of the afterlife as her mother battles a terminal illness.
The government banned the film last September amid complaints from conservative Muslim groups and after the Islamic affairs department said some scenes went against Islamic teachings in Malaysia.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said the prosecution was taking place under a “vague and arbitrary statute” and urged Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and his government to direct prosecutors to drop the case.
“[Anwar’s government is] fundamentally failing to protect freedom of expression, and pursuing criminal cases for political motivations,” Robertson said in emailed comments. “This sort of crude political pandering at the expense of human rights is precisely the sort of thing that Anwar accused previous governments of doing when he was in the opposition – but now he’s hypocritically changed his tune after assuming power, and is using the same censorship and persecution.”
Anwar came to power promising reforms after a hotly-contested election in November 2022.
Robertson urged the government to lift the ban on the film.
Malay Muslims make up just over half the Malaysian population, but there are also large communities of ethnic Chinese and Indians as well as Indigenous people who follow other religions.
Khairi and Tan have said the decision to ban their film was “irrational” and a breach of their constitutional rights to freedom of speech.
Last month, they filed an application to commence a legal challenge against the government over its decision to ban the film, according to Free Malaysia Today.