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Indonesia Upholds Controversial Blasphemy Law

Monday 19 April 2010, by siawi2


Source, The New York Times, April 19, 2010

JAKARTA — After months of hearings and protests from both sides, Indonesia’s Constitutional Court ruled Monday that a 45-year-old law banning religious blasphemy was constitutional and would remain on the books.

The 1965 decree allows the attorney general’s office to ban religious groups that “distort” or “misrepresent” official faiths and calls for up to five years in prison for anyone found guilty of heresy.

The law also limits the number of officially recognized religions in Indonesia to six: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism. In practice, the law is applied primarily to perceived offenses against mainstream Islam. Nearly 90 percent of Indonesia’s 240 million people are Muslims.

Several fundamentalist Islamic groups, which had gathered during previous hearings since the court took up the case in November, rallied outside the courthouse again Monday as 600 riot police officers looked on.

Members of the Islamic Defender’s Front, a militant group that has attacked religious pluralism rallies in the past, attacked lawyers seeking to repeal the law during the court’s final hearing last week.

The court’s chief justice, Mohammad Mahfud, said in the 8-to-1 decision that the law did not contradict the country’s 1945 Constitution or its national ideology, known as Pancasila, even though both nominally guarantee freedom of religion.

The judicial review was first sought by a coalition of human rights groups led by the Wahid Institute, an organization founded by Indonesia’s late president, Abdurrahman Wahid, that campaigns for religious pluralism.

“This is a setback for Indonesian democracy,” said Uli Parulian Sihombing, a human rights lawyer and part of the team that filed the constitutional challenge. Mr. Sihombing said that under Indonesian law there was no appeal process for constitutional challenges.

Supporters of the law, who include members of the parliamentary commission charged with handling religious issues, say the law is necessary to prevent confusion and conflict between religious groups.

The 1965 decree was cited in 2008 when the government all but banned Ahmadiyah, an Islamic sect that does not believe Muhammad is the last prophet — a central tenet of Islam — after pressure from fundamentalist Muslim groups.

In 2007, the Indonesian Supreme Court sentenced Abdul Rachman, who is the No.2 leader of a religious group known as Lia Eden and who claims to be the reincarnation of the Prophet Muhammad, to three years in prison for blasphemy.

Police also arrested Ahmad Moshaddeq, the leader of an Islamic sect known as al-Qiyada, on charges of blasphemy in 2007, even after he declared from the steps of a central Jakarta police station that he had realized his teachings were misguided and would return to mainstream Islam. The attorney general’s office banned al-Qiyada that same year.

Mr. Moshaddeq, whose house was burned down by a mob, has said that he is the next Islamic prophet and does not require his followers to pray five times a day or toward Mecca.

Other Islamic sects have faced persecution under the law. Mr. Sihombing estimates that hundreds of people have been jailed, including a number of journalists.

Human rights campaigners argue that militant organizations use the law to justify violent attacks on minority religious groups. Ahmadi followers are regularly attacked, they say, and their mosques burned.