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Indonesian police take flak as force marks birthday

Rights groups take aim at arbitrary arrests, 'overzealous' use of blasphemy law

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Indonesian police take flak as force marks birthday

Indonesian policemen stand ready at a protest site in Jakarta in this 2019 file photo. (Photo: Konradus Epa/UCA News)

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Indonesian police have come under fire from rights groups for committing “repressive acts” against activists and also for bowing to public pressure in handling certain cases, particularly blasphemy allegations.

Police were also arbitrarily arresting and detaining people without due process, they said as the national police force marked its 74th anniversary on July 1.

In a statement, the Indonesian Legal Aid Institution (YLBHI) and the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace said they were particularly concerned about the arbitrary use of an electronic information and transaction law, the Criminal Code and the blasphemy law.

“Police have always been too zealous in using the laws to arrest and detain individuals accused of blasphemy," said YLBHI director Asfinawati, who like many Indonesians only uses one name.

She said her group logged 38 blasphemy cases from January to May of this year, mostly linked to social media, of which 10 people await trial, which is too many in such a short period. 

Asfinawati said it is sad to know that in many of these cases police have been bowing to public pressure and were pursuing them when they would usually be more inclined not to. 

“Of the 38 cases, 27 were pursued due to pressure through protest actions,” she said.  

In one case a man was arrested by police after a photo of him stepping on the Quran went viral on social media. It later emerged the photo had been doctored, she said.

She also urged the police to stop using heavy-handed or violent tactics on suspects and to return to its mission to protect the people.

Bonar Tigor Naipospos, deputy chairman of the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace, said the police have been acting like the military during the New Order era under Suharto. 

Police have often abused the electronic transaction law and the blasphemy law to arrest people, he told UCA News.

He pointed to the arrest of a young man in North Maluku province on June 18 for reposting a joke on Facebook about the police told by the late Abdurrahman Wahid, a former president. 

The joke was "there are only three honest police [in Indonesia] — police statues, speed bumps and General Hugeng Imam Santoso,” a former police chief. 

“Luckily, the man was freed following an outcry,” Naipospos said.

He also pointed to the case of a Buddhist woman from North Sumatra called Meliana who was jailed for 18 months for blasphemy in 2018 for complaining about the noise from a mosque’s loudspeaker

It was petty, Naipospos said, adding the police did not act professionally in this case.  

Choirul Anam, from the National Commission of Human Rights, said the blasphemy law needs an overhaul.

“It boils down to religious tolerance and blasphemy allegations should not be settled through law enforcement but through dialogue to build tolerance,” he said. 

National police chief General Idham Azis responded by apologizing to the Indonesian people, saying he was sorry “if the police have not met people’s expectations.”

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