8-17-2011By Quinn O'Keefe
Senior Associate, Human Rights Defenders
When the Indonesian government says it is tolerant of religious minorities, don’t believe it. It is the government’s laws and their selective enforcement that are fueling extremist violence, as well as the continued harassment and persecution of religious minorities.
While all religious minorities are at risk, Indonesia’s Ahmadiyya have been particularly persecuted compared to other minorities. An incident that received international notoriety occurred in February 2011, when more than 1,000 villagers armed with machetes and sticks stormed a house of Ahmadiyya worship, killing three and wounding six others. This happened in a village in Banten, not far from Jakarta. For a short while, graphic video footage of the attack went viral on YouTube (it was quickly taken down). The attackers were caught on tape stoning their victims to death, then beating the corpses as police officers and villagers watched and did nothing to stop the bloodshed.
This was not an isolated incident of extremist violence against the Ahmadiyya, an Islamic sect that is considered “deviant” by Indonesian ministerial decree. Just last week, 30 members of the Islamic Defenders Front attacked an Indonesian Ahmadiyya congregation in South Sulawesi, an incident in which three were injured.
The Indonesian criminal justice system has simply failed in Banten and in many other violent attacks against religious minorities. Despite the police presence and video documenting the attack, only 12 villagers were charged and received sentences ranging from three to six months imprisonment for their role in the attack. None were charged with murder, even though one had been caught on video bashing an Ahmadi man to death with a rock. The court even handed down sentences that were less than recommended by the prosecutors, stating that the Ahmadiyya were the true culprits instigating the violence. Then on Monday, the same court found an Ahmadi victim of that attack, Deden Sudjana, guilty of disobeying police orders and “ill-treatment,” and sentenced him to six months in prison. Deden’s hand was nearly severed during the attack.
It is this appalling juxtaposition between sentences that really illustrates the government’s mistreatment of religious minorities through the application of its criminal laws.
Take another example: In February, a Christian man accused of blasphemy for distributing pamphlets that apparently insulted Islam received five years imprisonment – the maximum penalty under the law. Upon hearing the verdict and deeming anything but penalty of death too lenient, a mob of over 1,000 strong stormed the courthouse and set Christian churches on fire in protest.
Violence against religious minorities is a result of laws that fuel intolerance in Indonesia. While the constitution guarantees freedom of religion, there are many provincial and regional bans against Ahmadiyya practice, including in Java. There is also a 2008 ministerial decree meant to protect Ahmadiyya from further persecution, but in actuality restricts public shows of support for the religion and actually calls the sect deviant. Then the blasphemy law grants local governments freedom to charge and detain members of religious minorities that are considered deviant.
The central government should not hide behind its constitution and international commitments to say Indonesia is a religious tolerant nation. Rather, it must take the lead and guarantee uniform enforcement of criminal laws and reform decrees that, in effect, officially ban minority religions and practice. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono should also be held to his word when he says mob violence is illegal, and hardline groups should be disbanded.
The Indonesian government has long been considered a human rights and democratic outpost in Asia, now it is time it starts acting like one.
In November 2010, Human Rights First released a report, Blasphemy Laws Exposed: The Consequences of Criminalizing “Defamation of Religions”, which details more than 50 recent cases from 15 countries. The report provides a window into how national blasphemy laws are abused by governments around the globe. The real-life stories in the report document how, time and again, accusations of blasphemy have resulted in arrests and arbitrary detentions and have sparked assaults, murders and mob attacks.