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Time to stop criminalizing beliefs in Indonesia

By Rupert Abbott
Tajul Muluk, a Shi’a Muslim religious leader from East Java, is currently serving a four-year sentence for blasphemy.© JUNI KRISWANTO/AFP/GettyImages

Indonesia has come a long way on human rights since the end of the Suharto era. But despite the progress, there have been some serious setbacks over the past decade — not least when it comes to the issue of freedom of religion and expression.

The past ten years have been marked by shrinking space for religious pluralism, with those professing minority beliefs increasingly facing threats, violent attacks and imprisonment.

Across Indonesia, churches and mosques have been burned down, whole communities forced to flee because of their beliefs, and a range of laws and bylaws introduced to silence the expression of minority beliefs.

Last week, Amnesty International launched a new briefing on one particular aspect of this disturbing trend – Indonesia’s blasphemy laws.

Scores of people have been jailed under the blasphemy laws for nothing more than peacefully expressing their beliefs – some for simply voicing a “deviant” faith, others for “crimes” like posting their opinions on Facebook or whistling while praying or claiming to have received a “revelation from God.”

The numbers paint a sorry picture. Although the so-called blasphemy law has been on the books since 1965, it was rarely used until the last decade, with 13 convictions in almost 40 years. But during former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s time in office (2004-2014), Amnesty International has documented at least 106 individuals who have been jailed for blasphemy, some facing as long as five years behind bars.

Our research also reveals how blasphemy cases are mostly coordinated at the local level. Local officials, the police and hard-line Islamist groups are able to collude to harass religious minorities, using the blasphemy laws as one of their tools.

While the vast majority of convictions are under the 1965 blasphemy law, it has also inspired other laws used for the same purpose.

The Electronic Information and Transaction (ITE) Law, which governs use of the internet, contains blasphemy provisions, for example, that are often used to target people for social media posts.

One example is the case of Alexander Aan, which has received widespread international media attention. A 30-year old civil servant from West Sumatra province, An was fined and sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison for “blasphemy,” after posting in an atheist Facebook group.

Before his conviction, Alexander was forced to seek police protection after an angry mob gathered outside his office and threatened to beat him up — a chilling example of the threat of vigilante violence often hanging over those accused of blasphemy.

The blasphemy laws clearly contravene Indonesia’s international obligations to uphold the rights to freedom of speech and freedom of religion or belief. Amnesty International considers all those imprisoned simply for peacefully expressing their religious beliefs to be prisoners of conscience.

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has a real opportunity to address this issue head-on, and to usher in a new era of respect for human rights in Indonesia, particularly for freedom of religion and expression.

As a first step, Amnesty International is calling for the immediate and unconditional release of all those jailed under the blasphemy laws — at least nine individuals at the time of writing.

A longer-term priority must be to repeal the blasphemy law and provisions in other laws that criminalize the expression of beliefs. They are simply incompatible with Indonesia’s international human rights obligations concerning freedom of expression and freedom of religion and belief — rights which are also guaranteed by Indonesia’s Constitution.

Many of the signals from Indonesia’s new administration are encouraging — Amnesty International looks forward to seeing pledges on human rights followed with real action.

This op-ed originally appeared in The Jakarta Globe.