The husband and wife were arrested on December 18th after police received a report that they had repeatedly hit their four children, aged nine to 14-years-old. Malaysian newspaper The Star reported that the police report stems from an incident in which the Muslim couple struck their 12-year-old son on the hands for refusing to perform his prayers.
The boy told his teachers in Stockholm about the incident, which was then passed along to the school's counselors, who in turn notified police. It has been illegal in Sweden for parents physically punish their children since the late 1970s.
A day later, authorities arrested the parents and placed the children in foster care while their parents await trial, The Star reported.
"It's a terrible situation for the parents and the children," lawyer Timo Manninen, the public defender involved in the child custody side of the case, told The Local. "When the parents are being held on remand, they obviously can't take care of their children."
The couple has lived in Sweden for three years. The man, Azizul Raheem Awalludin, works for Tourism Malaysia in Stockholm and has worked for his country's tourism ministry since 2000. His wife, Shalwati Nurshal, is a secondary school teacher on unpaid leave. The Swedish foreign ministry said neither Awalludin nor Nurshal are registered as diplomats, leading prosecutors to conclude that diplomatic immunity does not apply in the case.
Formal charges have yet to be filed against the couple, who are being held on remand on suspicion of gross violation of integrity (grov fridskränkning) that took place between June 2011 and December 2013. The mother's lawyer, Kristofer Stahre, told The Local both parents are being held with restrictions that keep them largely isolated from the outside world and that the preliminary investigation will likely take two or three more weeks.
"There is a lot of material to go through, but everyone is now working harder to speed thing up as they recognize the sensitivity of the case," he said.
If found guilty, the parents risk being sentenced by up to ten years in prison.
Stahre added that he was unable to confirm details of the abuse reported in The Star due to confidentiality rules surrounding the case, but explained the situation was the result of a "clash of cultures".
"These are law-abiding Malaysian citizens who have raised their children according to customs and laws in Malaysia," he explained, adding that parents in Malaysia are allowed to be physical when disciplining their children.
"Many countries have a different view than Sweden when it comes to raising children. While Sweden has been a pioneer when it comes to outlawing corporal punishment, when foreigners come here they often continue with the same practices they used in their home countries. That's the case here, and it's not the first time that a diplomat has been involved in a case like this."
Stahre said what makes this case unique as that prosecutors were granted a remand order to have the parents detained during the preliminary investigation.
"It's very rare, but the prosecutor cited concerns they might flee the country, and that they might continue the crime. Another reason given was the possibility that they could affect the investigation if they remained free," the lawyer explained.
Sweden was the first country to introduce a formal ban on corporal punishment in 1979. A slew of countries have since followed suit, but the arrest and detention of the Malaysian couple has sparked outrage in their home country. Malaysian MP N. Surendran toled The Star that the actions taken by authorities in Sweden were "disproportionate and extreme".
Another MP, Datuk Abdul Rahman, acknowledged that Sweden's laws against smacking were "commendable", but also questioned how the matter had been handled.
"[The Swedes] must understand the difference between abuse and teaching a lesson," he told the paper.
On January 19th, Malaysian journalist Joe Lee launched a twitter campaign using the hashtag #SwedenLetThemGo to draw attention to the case and advocate for the couple's release. A Facebook page started to generate support for their case has garnered more than 14,000 likes.
On Wednesday, the Malaysian foreign ministry released a statement confirming it was working on the case, noting their first priority was to get the couple's children transferred to a Muslim Malaysian family in Sweden.
"The Swedish Department of Social Service has given full cooperation thus far and has treated it as a special case. It has started interviewing several Malaysian families currently living in Sweden as requested by the ministry for suitability to be given the custody," the statement said.
In addition, two Malaysian officials from the Women, Family and Community Ministry are ready to head for Sweden, if they are needed, to assist the family.
Family lawyer Manninen also cited confidentiality concerns in refusing to elaborating on the details of the case, but said he sympathized with those in Malaysia who had taken issue with how the case had been handled in Sweden.
"I completely understand their critique," he told The Local. "Things could have been in a different way so that the parents could have been involved and given their consent to where the children were placed."
He emphasized that the current situation was temporary, and put in place in the early phases of the criminal investigation.
"It's unclear what might happen next," he said.
Calls by The Local to the Malaysian Embassy in Stockholm were not immediately returned.
The case is not the first time in recent years that political officials from abroad have run afoul of Sweden's laws outlawing corporal punishment. In September 2011, a visiting Italian politician was convicted by a Swedish court for assaulting his son while on holiday in Stockholm, a case that sparked heated debate in both Italy and Sweden.