Judges Bowed to Fear in Blasphemy Ruling, Rights Activists Say

By webadmin on 11:24 pm Apr 20, 2010
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Camelia Pasandaran & Ulma Haryanto

Indonesia’s Constitutional Court was guided by fear when it rejected a motion to revise the 1965 Blasphemy Law, critics from local and international human rights and civic organizations claimed on Tuesday.

The criticism came a day after the court ruled that the bid to review or annul the law, which recognizes only six religions, had no legal basis.

Pungky Indarti, from human rights watchdog Imparsial, said the judges had opted to take the safer, conservative route by neglecting the voices of the minority, whose rights were trodden on in the name of the law.

“The fear of anarchy stemming from the possible annulment of this law is baseless,” Pungky said. “If a conflict occurs, it is only because law enforcers are unable to prevent it from happening.”

The ruling was backed by seven members of the nine-member panel, with one dissenter.

The law makes it illegal to “publicize, recommend or organize public support” for non-orthodox versions of six religions recognized and protected by the state, but it does not stop followers of minor faiths, such as Sikhs.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said the ruling dealt a severe blow to religious freedom, and urged Indonesia to revoke the blasphemy law and other laws that infringed on the right to freedom of religion, belief and conscience.

“In 2006, a Jakarta court sentenced three leaders of a spiritual movement called the Eden Community – Lia Eden, M. Abdul Rachman and Wahyu Andito Putro Wibisono – to prison terms of two to three years for violating the blasphemy law,” said the group’s deputy director for Asia, Elaine Pearson. “The blasphemy law criminalizes the peaceful expression of certain religious beliefs. It hangs like a Sword of Damocles over the heads of religious minorities and those who practice traditional religions.”

Human Rights Watch praised Judge Maria Farida Indrati, who issued the sole dissenting opinion. Indrati said the law was a product of the past, and even if it was still valid according to the Constitution, it had been substantially weakened over the years with amendments made to the 1945 Constitution itself, particularly in respect to articles regarding human rights.

She said wrongful acts were being carried out against minority groups in its name and the articles in the law itself were in violation of the Constitution under amendments made in 1945 that explicitly guarantee freedom of religion.

In addition, Indrati said, under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Indonesia ratified in 2006, states are to respect the right to freedom of religion.

Ifdhal Kasim, the chairman of the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas Ham), said the court still followed the voice of the majority instead of focusing on the protection of human rights.

“The court’s image as an institution that provides constitutional protection to the people was not displayed through this ruling,” Ifdhal said.

The court still tends to favor the interests of larger groups, rather than individuals discriminated against by the law, he said.

The law was used in 2008 to force followers of the Islamic Ahmadiyah sect to go underground and is regularly cited by minority groups as a source of discrimination and intimidation.

Pressure also came in the form of an attack within the court’s compounds.

Members of the hard-line Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) assaulted four people in the court’s basement on the last day of arguments in the case.

But Syafi’i Anwar, of the International Center for Islam and Pluralism, said he chose to remain optimistic.

“The proceedings in the court itself were historic, with various testimonials delivered by a number of analysts and human rights activists,” Syafi’i said.

“As a human rights activist I am disappointed, and I think that this is a setback for protection of minority rights, but I think there will still be other ways to challenge the law.”

One of the review’s applicants, Hendardi, who chairs the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace, suggested that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and the House of Representatives consider drafting a bill focused on eliminating religious intolerance.

According to his institute, there were 291 reported cases of religious-based violence in 2009 nationwide, up from 265 cases in 2008.