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Indonesian extremists target online critics

Religious leaders, activists voice alarm over threats and assaults against critical posts on social media

Indonesian extremists target online critics

Indonesian hardline Muslim activists are restrained by anti-riot police and military personnel as they shout slogans while brandishing wooden sticks during a local tribal festival in Pontianak, West Kalimantan province, in this May 20, 2017 photo. Members of hardline groups are being accused of an intimidation campaign against their critics posting comments on social media. (Photo by AFP)

Rights activists and religious leaders in Indonesia have condemned what they said is a campaign of intimidation by hard-line groups against people posting critical comments about them or Islam on social media.

The intimidation involves threats and, in some cases, physical assault, they said.

The Anti Persecution Coalition, a rights group, said it had logged 87 cases of hardliners targeting social media users since they opened a crisis center hotline on June 1.

Damar Juniarto, a coalition member and regional coordinator of the Southeast Asia Freedom of Expression Network, said people are being targeted for allegedly insulting Islam, ulemas (Muslim scholars) and leaders of radical groups such as Muhammad Rizieq Shihab who heads the notorious Islamic Defenders Front (FPI).

"It is very worrying," Juniarto said, "as it increased sharply from 43 cases in May and 4 cases in April."

The sharp rise follows Shihab's refusal to return to Indonesia from Saudi Arabia to answer pornography charges, which prompted widespread criticism on social media, he said.

One case involved Fiera Lovita, a doctor from Solok in West Sumatra who said she was forced to move Jakarta after facing a barrage of abuse from FPI members after she criticized Shihab in her Facebook.

"I had no choice but to leave. If I stayed longer, It would have been very dangerous for me and my two children," she said.

Juniarto said another case involved a 15-year-old boy in East Jakarta who was attacked by a mob numbering more than 100 people at his home.

"He was beaten round the head, and issued with death threats to force him to apologize," Juniarto said.

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Bishop Dominikus Saku of Atambua, chairman of the bishops' Commission for Justice, Peace and Pastoral for Migrant People, called the intimidation appalling.

"The government must take firm steps against them," he said. "They are extremely dangerous."

Every citizen has the right to express their opinion, without having to be constantly overshadowed by fear, he said.

Father Yohanes Kristoforus Tara of the Franciscan Commission on Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation said the hard-line groups were committing barbarous acts.

This is happening because the perpetrators feel superior to others.

"It's also very dangerous for the rule of law. The country will be in turmoil if each person solves their problems by persecuting others, "he said.

Muslim leaders also voiced concerns, including Said Aqil Siroj, Chairman of the Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia's largest Islamic organization.

Intimidation cannot be justified in any form, he said.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo has responded to the situation by ordering National Police Chief Tito Karnavian to take firm action against the perpetrators.

"If we let this continue, this nation will become an uncivilized one," he said.

The FPI remained defiant however. One member, Habib Novel Bamukmin, said the group would not remain silent if anyone insults Islam and Muslim clerics.

"When someone from any religion, any ethnicity, any tribe insults Islam, we will pursue him wherever," he said.


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