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)

Katharina R. Lestari, Jakarta

April 19, 2018
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.

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 They shackle my freedom of expression and must be repealed,” said Aan, who was released from prison in January 2014.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