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Jail sentence over crash that killed 8 stirs uproar in Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR - A Malaysian driver's imprisonment over a highly publicised road accident that killed eight teenagers riding modified bicycles on a highway has once again sparked an uproar in Malaysia, more than five years after the accident.

Sam Ke Ting, then 22, crashed her car into a group of teenage cyclists who were riding modified bicycles on a highway in Johor Baru at 3.20am on Feb 18, 2017. Eight of them - aged between 13 and 16 years - died, triggering a debate on the act of riding modified bicycles dangerously on a public road.

Known as "basikal lajak", the modified bicycles generally do not have lights and brakes.

Despite being acquitted twice on the charge of reckless driving and causing the deaths, Sam, now 27, was convicted by the High Court in Johor Baru on Wednesday (April 13), and was denied bail.

Sam, who worked as a clerk, started serving her sentence immediately after the six-year prison term was handed down by High Court Judge Abu Bakar Katar, who said in his judgment that she was at fault for driving fast in a badly lit road.

This is despite the Magistrate's Court ruling previously that she was not driving under the influence of alcohol, was not distracted and was possibly driving under the road's speed limit at the time of the incident.

The High Court Judge rejected Sam's appeal for stay of the sentence as the defence has yet to receive approval from the Court of Appeal. She will remain in prison until the court grants her leave to appeal her conviction.

Her lawyer, Mr Muhammad Faizal Mokhtar, told The Star newspaper on Thursday that he had begun the appeal process.

He also acknowledged the public support for Sam since her imprisonment.

"Thanks for all the support shown to Sam," he was quoted as saying.

Sam's conviction triggered an immediate uproar, with the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) - a member of the government - offering her legal aid to further her case.

Two online petitions seeking justice for Sam had collectively amassed more than 950,000 signatures in just over 24 hours.

Malaysians question whether the act of riding modified bicycles - mostly involving teenagers - is now being seen as acceptable.

Youngsters tend to gather in a big group to ride on public roads. The group involved in the crash in 2017 was reportedly as big as 30 teenagers.

"The High Court Judge has opened the floodgates to say that basikal lajak and the parents of these kids have done no wrong. The onus is on the road users to take care of the safety of these kids," said Twitter user Mengo Yee.

Another Twitter user, Farhan, wrote: "I sympathise with the families for the loss of the children, but a lot has to be asked about why these kids were out on public roads at 3am in the morning without adult supervision."

The Malaysian Institute of Road Safety Research said that parents should not be allowing their children to participate in such activities on a highway.

"This is something that we should not support. The highway is not built for bicycle racing," said the institute's chairman, Professor Wong Shaw Voon, as quoted in The Star.

Some critics including opposition MPs have objected to the judge's denial of bail for Sam, pointing to former prime minister Najib Razak, who was granted bail pending an appeal against his graft conviction.

Najiib on Wednesday urged all parties not to compare his conviction with that of Sam's and not to racialise the issue in the accident.

Sam is ethnic Chinese while the teenagers who died were ethnic Malays.

Timeline of events:

Feb 18, 2017

Sam Ke Ting, then 22, crashed into a group of teenagers riding modified bicycles without brakes on a public road in Johor Baru at 3.20am.

Eight teenagers aged 13 to 16 years died.

March 2017

Sam was charged with reckless driving and causing the deaths of teenagers under Section 41 (1) of the Road Transport Act 1987.

If found guilty, she could have faced up to 10 years in prison and fined up to RM20,000 (S$6,452).

Oct 2019

She was acquitted by a Magistrate's Court without being called to enter her defence.

Feb 2021

The prosecution appealed to the High Court, which ruled that the prosecution had established a prima facie case and that Sam should enter her defence.

Oct 2021

The Magistrate's Court again acquitted Sam after hearing her defence. It ruled that she was not driving under the influence of alcohol, was not distracted and was possibly driving under the speed limit.

The prosecution appealed to the High Court.

April 13, 2022

The High Court overturned the Magistrate Court's decision, sentencing Sam to six years in prison and a fine of RM6,000. She was denied bail and had to start serving her sentence immediately.

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