(Jakarta) - Indonesia's Constitutional Court dealt a severe blow to religious freedom by upholding a controversial law prohibiting "blasphemy," Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch urged the Indonesian government to revoke this and other laws that infringe upon the rights to freedom of religion, belief, and conscience.
The court, in an 8-1 decision on April 19, 2010, ruled that the blasphemy law, which provides criminal penalties for those who express religious beliefs that deviate from the central tenets of the six officially recognized religions, is a lawful restriction of minority religious beliefs because it allows for the maintenance of public order.
"The Constitutional Court's decision on the blasphemy law poses a real threat to the beliefs of Indonesia's religious minorities," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "If President Yudhoyono is serious about promoting religious pluralism in Indonesia, he should work to have this law and others like it taken off the books."
At the opening of the Sixth Assembly of the World Movement for Democracy on April 12, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono spoke with pride about Indonesia's democratic development, proclaiming: "We in Indonesia have shown, by example, that Islam, democracy, and modernity can grow together. We are a living example that there is no conflict between a Muslim's spiritual obligation to Allah SWT [and] his civic responsibility as a citizen in a pluralist society."
The constitutional challenge to the blasphemy law was filed in October 2009 by a group of Indonesian nongovernmental organizations and individuals led by former president Abdurrahman Wahid, a longtime Muslim supporter of religious freedom and tolerance. The petitioners argued that the law violated the constitutional right to freedom of expression and Indonesia's obligations under international human rights treaties.
Indonesia's blasphemy law, article 156a of the Indonesian criminal code, punishes deviations from the central tenets of the six officially recognized religions with up to five years in prison. It is based on a 1965 government regulation, issued by then-President Sukarno, which declared that five religions were officially recognized in Indonesia: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Confucianism was added to this list in 1998.
The blasphemy law has been used to prosecute and imprison members of religious minorities and of traditional religions. 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. Others prosecuted under the law include members of the many traditional religions practiced in Java, Sumatra, Borneo, Sulawesi, and other parts of Indonesia.
"The blasphemy law criminalizes the peaceful expression of certain religious beliefs," Pearson said. "It hangs like a ‘Sword of Damocles' over the heads of religious minorities and those who practice traditional religions."
The blasphemy law also serves as the legal basis for a number of government regulations that facilitate official discrimination on the basis of religion. These include a June 2008 government decree that ordered members of the Ahmadiyah religious community to cease all public religious activities on the grounds that they deviated from the principal teachings of Islam and threatened violators with up to five years in prison. The decree was issued in the aftermath of a violent attack on June 1, 2008, by more than 500 Islamist militants on a group of peaceful demonstrators supporting religious pluralism. More than 60 demonstrators were wounded by the group, who called themselves the Islam Troop Command, and several Ahmadiyah members were hospitalized.
Members of Islamist groups including the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) attended the Constitutional Court's weekly hearings on the law. The group's members are alleged to have led a violent attack on lawyers for the petitioners at the Constitutional Court building following the last court hearing on March 24.
While the court majority said that religion is a private matter with which the state should not interfere, it upheld the blasphemy law's restrictions, finding that religious minorities could become targets of violence by intolerant members of the public who were not sufficiently educated to support religious pluralism. Top government officials who served as witnesses in the court's examination, Suryadharma Ali, minister of religious affairs, and Patrialis Akbar, minister for law and human rights, both argued in favor of the constitutionality of the law, saying that if it were overturned, violent mobs would probably attack religious minorities.
Judge Maria Farida Indrati issued the sole dissenting opinion, arguing that the law should be found unconstitutional because it explicitly discriminated against religious minorities and would force individuals to abandon traditional and minority beliefs against their will.
"Indonesia's laws should protect those who peacefully express religious views and punish those who threaten to use violence against others, not the other way around," Pearson said. "If the government wants to prevent violence, it should send a message by punishing violent behavior."
Indonesia's 1945 constitution explicitly guarantees freedom of religion in article 28(E). Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Indonesia ratified in 2006, states are to respect the right to freedom of religion. This right includes "freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching." Members of religious minorities "shall not be denied the right, in community with other members of their group, ... to profess and practice their own religion." Restrictions on the right to freedom of religion to protect public safety or order must be strictly necessary and proportional to the purpose being sought.