KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 9, 2009 (AFP) - Twelve Malaysians were charged with sedition and illegal assembly Wednesday over an explosive protest against the relocation of a Hindu temple which saw a severed cow's head paraded and abused.
The case is the latest religious dispute to erupt in multicultural Malaysia, where the population is dominated by Muslim Malays who live alongside large ethnic Chinese and Indian communities.
The 12 accused, all Muslim Malays, pleaded not guilty to the charges linked to the August 28 demonstration during which the bloodied head of a cow -- a sacred animal to Hindus -- was stamped and spat on.
Six of them were charged with sedition and face up to three years in jail. All 12 were accused of illegal assembly which carries a maximum penalty of one year's imprisonment.
Deputy public prosecutor Mohammad Dusuki Mokhtar described their actions as "very serious" and said the sedition charges were laid because "bringing and stamping on the cow's head... could upset Hindus."
Salehuddin Saidin, the lawyer for the accused who were freed on bail, told the court they had not intended to cause offence and that the cow's head was meant only to show that the siting of the temple was a stupid decision.
"My clients say they did not want to insult other religions in Malaysia and if you look at the Malay culture, the cow is regarded as a stupid animal. It is not aimed to insult any other religion," he said.
Opponents of the proposed relocation of the 150-year-old Hindu temple said its new location would create traffic jams and noise in a Muslim-majority neighbourhood.
The cow's head protest caused alarm among minorities and Hindu activists organised a candlelight vigil during which 16 of those present were arrested.
Local authorities in Selangor state, which surrounds the capital Kuala Lumpur, have found another location for the temple about 200 metres (yards) away from the proposed site.
Shahrel Mohammad Nor, a local resident who opposed the temple relocation, was one of a noisy group of 50 supporters who turned up at the court.
"We did not do this to incite any religious feelings, but I admit that this has strained religious relations," he told reporters.
"All we wanted was for the temple not to be so close (to our housing area) so that there would not be any religious conflict later," he said.
Issues related to religion, language and race are highly sensitive in Malaysia, which witnessed deadly ethnic riots in 1969.