Draconian blasphemy laws seen as holding Indonesia back

Demand mounts to repeal regulations as fears grow that Muslim-majority country could become a 'failed state'
Draconian blasphemy laws seen as holding Indonesia back

More than 10,000 Muslims from various groups stage a rally at Istiqlal Mosque in Central Jakarta in this Oct. 14, 2016 file photo. They demanded the death penalty be meted out to then Jakarta governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, for alleged blasphemy. (Photo by Ryan Dagur/ucanews.com)

Alexander Aan, a former civil servant from Dharmasraya district in West Sumatra, never suspected the anti-religious statements he posted on a Facebook account would land him in prison.

"I just shared my thoughts," Aan told ucanews.com, adding that some people who read the comments felt insulted and reported him to the local authorities.

A court found him guilty of disseminating information to incite religious hatred and sentenced him to 30 months in jail in 2012 under Article 28(2) of the Electronic Information and Transactions (ITE) Law. He was also fined 100 million rupiah (US$10,600).

He was initially charged with violating the law on blasphemy and urging others to embrace atheism under Article 156(a) of the Criminal Code.

The code's provision on blasphemy, which carries a maximum punishment of five years in prison, was based on a presidential decree on the prevention of religious abuse and defamation, known as the Blasphemy Law. That was passed in 1965 by the nation's first president, Soekarno.

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The president is believed to have issued the law to accommodate requests from Islamic organizations to prohibit mystical indigenous beliefs, which they believed could tarnish other more established religions in the country.  

"The blasphemy laws seem ridiculous to me. They shackle my freedom of expression and must be repealed," said Aan, who was released from prison in January 2014.

On the flip side, Facebook has also blocked at least 70 pages because they include religious comments by hard-line groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front, leading to protests and petitions lodged with Facebook Indonesia in January. 

For Alia Shahnaz, the blasphemy laws have no clear norms.

Her husband, Otto Rajasa, was sentenced to two years behind bars in July 2017 by a local court in Balikpapan, East Kalimantan, for allegedly spreading hostility and hatred against Muslims online.

"Any regulation that focuses on subjective feeling is surely far from justice," Shahnaz said.

Her husband questioned on Facebook the rationale of fellow Muslims who travelled to Jakarta to join an Islamist rally on Dec. 2, 2016 to demand then-Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a Chinese Christian, be arrested for blasphemy.

Purnama, known as Ahok, was sentenced to two years in prison after he was found guilty of insulting the Quran. In February of this year, he petitioned the Supreme Court to overturn his conviction and prison term, but the appeal was rejected.

"Imagine being jailed for two to five years just for something the majority regard as being 'inappropriate''" said Shahnaz, who has a 16-year-old son.

"The blasphemy laws give nothing but suffering to the nation and must be repealed," she said.

Political interests

In its 2014 report, "Prosecuting Beliefs: Indonesia's Blasphemy Laws," Amnesty International Indonesia said the laws are in violation of Indonesia's international obligations to respect and protect the right to freedom of expression as stated in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

The group reported that 12 people were prosecuted and convicted under the regulations last year and 106 others between 2005 and 2016.

"The blasphemy laws have been used to shackle freedom of expression for many people belonging to minority groups in recent years. Aan's case is just one example," said Haeril Halim, Amnesty International Indonesia's communication officer.

"Now there's a tendency to use these laws to get rid of people for the sake of political interests," he said, citing Purnama's case and two others involving Sukmawati Soekarnoputri and Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo.

Sukmawati, daughter of former president Soekarno, is facing legal charges after six social groups and individuals filed police reports against her for allegedly insulting Islam.

Her crime? While being featured on a fashion TV program, she read aloud a poem stating that the Islamic niqab head dress was not as beautiful as the konde (traditional hair bun), and that the adzan (Islamic call to prayer) was not as melodious as a traditional Indonesian ballad.

Pranowo, who is running for re-election in June, came under attack from Muslim hardliners after he read out a poem during another television program that said God was close by but was always being called to attention by groups wielding loudspeakers.

Indonesia will hold elections in 171 regions on June 27.

Andreas Harsono, an Indonesian researcher at the New York-based Human Rights Watch, said the extensive use and power of such blasphemy laws was a dangerous trend.

"They are not only used against religious minorities but also against political figures. It has to be stopped or Indonesia is likely to become a failed state," he said.

Meanwhile, Abdul Mu'ti, general secretary of Muhammadiyah — the second largest Islamic organization in the country — said it is not easy to separate religious issues from political ones.

"The former are often exploited for the sake of political interests," he said, as quoted by tirto.id.

Overlapping laws

Azas Tigor Nainggolan, a lawyer and coordinator of the human rights desk at the Indonesian Bishops' Commission for Justice and Peace, agreed the laws must be repealed in order for Indonesia to move forward.

"The use of such regulations shows the government is still an authoritarian one," he said, adding the Criminal Code is now a century old and no longer suitable for present day use.

He said many conflicts emerge because of overlapping regulations.

"We don't need the blasphemy and ITE laws. We only need one law which regulates all criminal acts," he said, referring to a 2008 law which could be amended after revisions were proposed in late 2016.

Taufiqulhadi, a legislator, said the provisions regarding blasphemy in the amendment bill have been expanded to ensure no one can insult any religion.

"People can insult a religious unconsciously [by accident] and this can create chaos within society," he said, as quoted by Kompas.com.

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