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Indonesia: Rights Record under Scrutiny at UN

Address Religious Freedom, Free Speech, Accountability at Human Rights Council

(Jakarta) – United Nations member states should urge Indonesia to adopt specific measures to ensure religious freedom, free expression, and accountability for abuses at the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Indonesia at the UN Human Rights Council on May 23, 2012, Human Rights Watch and KontraS (the Commission for “The Disappeared” and Victims of Violence) said today.

The UPR, through which each UN member country is examined once every four years, will allow governments to review Indonesia’s human rights record and make recommendations for improvements.

“Countries should be asking Indonesia hard questions about why over the past four years violence and discrimination against religious minorities is getting worse, and why Indonesia continues to imprison peaceful activists,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The UPR should put Indonesia on the spot to adopt specific reforms rather than dancing around the issues.”

The Indonesian government’s report to the UN submitted for the UPR claims that numerous concrete steps have been taken to put into effect seven recommendations that Indonesia accepted from its last UPR review in 2008. These recommendations were to develop human rights education and training, sign and ratify various human rights instruments, support and protect the work of civil society, combat impunity by security forces, revise the Penal Code, and develop systems to improve and share best practices to support human rights. However the government’s report only paints a partial picture of the serious challenges that remain, especially regarding religious freedom, free expression, and accountability for serious abuses committed by security forces, Human Rights Watch and KontraS said.

Religious Freedom

On religious freedom, the Indonesian government report acknowledges issues concerning protection of the Ahmadis, who consider themselves Muslim but whom some Muslims consider heretics, as well as disputes regarding building places of worship, and problems some groups face in practicing their religion. The report asserts that the “government tirelessly promotes religious tolerance and harmony,” and that the blasphemy law and a 2008 Joint Ministerial Decree on Ahmadiyah “regulates the proselytization of the Ahmadis as well as the call for all people to forbid resort of violence against certain religious groups.”

However, in reality, over the past four years violence against religious minorities, especially the Ahmadiyah, has dramatically increased. According to the Setara Institute, which monitors religious freedom, religious attacks have increased from 135 in 2007, to 216 in 2010, and 244 in 2011. Indonesian authorities have consistently failed to adequately address increasing incidents of mob violence directed by militant Islamist groups against religious minorities in Java and Sumatra, including against the Ahmadiyah, Bahai, Christians, Shia Muslims, and smaller spiritual movements. In the worst attack, Islamist militants killed three Ahmadiyah in Banten province, western Java in February 2011, and the attackers who were prosecuted served at most six months in prison.

While the 2008 Ahmadi decree does not expressly forbid worship, local decrees enacted following the national decree go further in banning Ahmadiyah worship. Approximately 30 Ahmadi mosques have been closed by the authorities. Human Rights Watch and KontraS urged other countries to call on Indonesia to lift various decrees, including the 2008 anti-Ahmadiyah decree, that limit religious freedom.

The Indonesian government report also defended the 2006 ministerial regulation on “maintaining religious harmony” in building houses of worship, saying that it is “adequate.” But pressures from Islamist militants, emboldened by the 2006 decree, have led local authorities to close more than 400 Christian churches in Muslim-majority areas according to the Indonesian Communion of Churches. Even in cases in which Christian churches have successfully sought court orders to permit them to open, such as in the case of the GKI Yasmin church in Bogor and HKBP Filadelfia church in Bekasi, local authorities have refused to carry out the court’s rulings, and the national government has failed to intervene.

“The Indonesian government claims it is protecting religious harmony, but countries shouldn’t be fooled when Christians and Ahmadis are under pressure every day to close their places of worship,” said Haris Azhar, the coordinator of KontraS. “Revoking discriminatory laws and upholding basic rights would be the best way of ensuring religious harmony.”

Freedom of Expression

Human Rights Watch and KontraS urged other countries to call for the release of all political prisoners in Indonesia, and lift restrictions on the right to freedom of expression. Nearly 100 activists from the Moluccas and Papua are imprisoned for "treason” for peacefully voicing political views, holding demonstrations, and raising separatist flags.

The prisoners include a Papuan former civil servant, Filep Karma, serving a 15-year term in Abepura prison, and Ruben Saiya, serving 20 years in Nusa Kambangan Island prison. In November 2011 the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued an opinion saying the Indonesian government is violating international law by detaining Karma and called for his immediate release.

The Indonesian government report does not address these issues, stating only, “The right to freedom of opinion and expression are guaranteed by the Constitution and national laws.” However, various laws are on the books continue to be enforced that criminalize the peaceful expression of political, religious, and other views. Offenses in Indonesia's criminal code such as treason (makar) and "inciting hatred" (haatzai artikelen) have been used repeatedly against peaceful political activists.

The government report claims that the “media environment in Indonesia continues to be one of the most vibrant and open in the region. … Freedom of expression and opinion is further promoted, including through the Internet.” However, the 2008 Information and Electronics Transactions Law punishes defamation sent over the internet with up to six years in prison. For instance, Alexander An, a civil servant alleged to be an atheist, is on trial at the Sijunjung district court, West Sumatra, under this law as well as for blasphemy for several posts from his Facebook account.

Police have also given in to Islamist militants who try to block public events they consider to be immoral. On May 4, Irshad Manji, a Canadian Muslim and lesbian, released the Indonesian version of her book, Allah, Liberty and Love: The Courage to Reconcile Faith and Freedom, at a Jakarta theater. But Jakarta police interrupted the event, saying that the organizers had no police permit to have “a foreigner speaking.” The next day, pressures from the militant Islam Defenders Front forced the Alliance of Independent Journalists to end Manji’s book talk prematurely.  

“Jailing people for peaceful flag-raisings or posting on Facebook makes a mockery of Indonesia’s claim that it respects free expression,” Pearson said. “Authorities are too willing to use the excuse of public order to shut down debate over sensitive topics.”

Accountability for Security Forces

On addressing impunity for members of the security forces, the government report states that in 2010 and 2011, military courts tried more than 1,500 criminal cases against military personnel, including for human rights violations.  This includes the “YouTube case,” in which several soldiers were videoed committing torture against civilians.

Human Rights Watch and KontraS have long raised concerns about Indonesia’s military justice process being opaque and that serious abuses such as torture and extrajudicial killings are not recognized in the military code, and are instead charged as disciplinary offenses. The government’s reference to the YouTube video refers to several soldiers who tortured two Papuan farmers, including holding a burning stick to one man’s genitals. Following posting of the video and international outcry, a military tribunal in January 2011 convicted three soldiers from Battalion 753 solely on disciplinary charges and sentenced them to between eight and ten months in prison. The soldiers still serve in the army.

To alleviate problems with military justice, Parliament in 2000 passed a resolution that military personnel should be tried in civilian courts for violations of the civilian criminal code. This requirement was included in article 65(2) of Law 34 of 2004 on the Indonesian Armed Forces (“the TNI Law”). However, for the legislation to be carried out, Law 31 of 1997 on Military Courts also needs to be amended. This has not taken place.

There has been no progress in reopening an investigation into the 2004 murder of Munir bin Thalib, a leading human rights lawyer. A special National Human Rights Commission team examined the conduct of police, prosecutors and judges in conducting the 2008 trial of a senior security official acquitted of Munir’s killing. In February 2010 the team found that all three institutions had performed their tasks poorly and recommended renewed efforts to establish responsibility for the murder.

“The Indonesian government cannot claim military trials are a success when convicted torturers are slapped on the wrist and continue to serve in the military,” Azhar said. “The government claims that they respect human rights but they ignore harassment and killing of human rights defenders, and let Munir’s murder go unpunished. Sadly, the government isn’t telling the truth.”


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