Prosecutors on Thursday charged two Malaysians with sedition and inciting religious enmity after they posted a photograph on Facebook considered an insult to the Muslim holy month of fasting.
They face up to eight years in prison if convicted of both charges in the Muslim-majority nation.
Alvin Tan and Vivian Lee, both ethnic Chinese non-Muslims in their 20s, drew criticism when they uploaded a photograph of themselves earlier this month eating pork stew while conveying greetings to Muslims for the current fasting month of Ramadan. Pork is forbidden for Muslims.
Tan and Lee had indicated last week that the photo was meant to be humorous.
Both pleaded not guilty Thursday in a Kuala Lumpur court, which refused to allow them to remain free on bail ahead of their trial.
Malaysia’s attorney general, Abdul Gani Patail, said in a statement that authorities want them detained because “they have the potential to upload content that could stir public anger.” They were expected to be placed in separate prisons ahead of a preliminary hearing Aug. 24 to schedule trial dates.
Sedition as defined by Malaysian law includes spreading ill will among people of different races. Ethnic Malay Muslims comprise nearly two-thirds of Malaysia’s 29 million people. Ethnic Chinese, who are nearly a quarter of the population, constitute the main minority community, mainly Buddhists and Christians.
Abdul Gani said a man was abducted and beaten up by a group of men this week in a case that was believed to be linked to the photo of Tan and Lee. He did not elaborate, but Malaysian media reports have said the incident involved an ethnic Chinese man who was stripped and eventually set free after his assailants scrawled Malay-language words translated as “I insulted the religion of Islam” with ink on his chest.
Racial and religious issues sometimes cause tensions in Malaysia, though ethnic violence is rare. Separately this month, some Muslim activists urged authorities to expel the first Vatican ambassador to Malaysia because they believed he was trying to interfere in a legal battle between the government and a Roman Catholic newspaper over the use of “Allah” as a translation for God.