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(New York) – The Indonesian government should immediately drop all charges and release Tajul Muluk, a Shia cleric on Madura Island who was sentenced on July 12, 2012, to two years in prison for blasphemy, Human Rights Watch said today.

Human Rights Watch called on the government to amend or repeal its blasphemy law and abolish the Islamist board known as Bakor Pakem, which formally sits in the Attorney General’s Office during investigations of alleged religious offenses.

“The Indonesian government should immediately drop the case against Tajul Muluk, which highlights the threat Indonesia’s blasphemy law poses to religious freedom,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government needs to reverse the growing trend of violence and legal action against religious minorities in the country.”

The Sampang district court on July 12 found Shia cleric Tajul Muluk guilty of blasphemy for his religious teachings. Under Indonesian law, blasphemy carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison.

For years, the Shia community in Nangkernang village, Omben district, Sampang regency, has faced problems from government and religious authorities. In February 2006, 40 Sunni clerics and four police officers signed a public statement, declaring that Shia Islam was heretical. The statement mentioned two meetings with Shia clerics, in which the Shia were told to return to “real Islam” but refused to do so. The statement also asked law enforcement agencies to enforce the blasphemy law against Tajul Muluk.

The statement was the first step in an ongoing hate campaign against Shia in Sampang. In 2009, Tajul Muluk had a disagreement with his younger brother Roisul Hukama which led Roisul to join the anti-Shia campaign in Madura.  In July 2011, police and Sampang officials persuaded Tajul Muluk to flee his village and provided him financial assistance to leave Nangkernang. Police and local officials have claimed the campaign against Muluk reflected the “family dispute” with his brother rather than his religious beliefs.

Throughout 2011, Islamist militants stepped up the campaign of harassment and intimidation against Shia in the Nangkernang hamlet. For instance, on December 6, 2011, when celebrating Ashura, a day of spiritual significance for Shia, Sunni militants prevented some 60 Shia residents from leaving their hamlet by blocking the road. Shia leader Iklil al Milal says he asked the police to take action to end the threats, but the police did not act.

On December 29, 2011, Sunni militants attacked the Nangkernang hamlet, burning houses and the madrasa (Islamic school), and causing around 500 Shia residents to flee. Police arrested and charged only one of the militants for the arson attack. Instead, the attack prompted the police to pressure Shia clerics, including Tajul Muluk and Iklil al Milal, to leave Nangkernang. The Ministry of Religious Affairs in Sampang also declared they will “supervise” hundreds of Shia to learn Sunni Islam.

On January 4, 2012, the Sampang chief prosecutor, Danang Purwoko Adji Susesno, as a member of Bakor Pakem , called on the Attorney General’s Office to ban “Tajul Muluk teachings” and stated in a letter that his Sampang office will press blasphemy charges against Muluk. Prosecutors made various claims about Tajul Muluk’s teachings and why they were contrary to Islam. The authorities questioned Tajul Muluk in February 2012, and charged him with blasphemy and “unpleasant misconduct” on April 24, 2012.

The Coordinating Board for Monitoring Mystical Beliefs in Society (Badan Koordinasi Pengawas Aliran Kepercayaan Masyarakat or Bakor Pakem) is a coordinating body under Indonesia’s Attorney General’s Office with branches in every province and regency under local prosecutors’ offices. According to the 2004 Public Prosecution Service Law, Bakor Pakem has the responsibility to provide “oversight in respect of religious beliefs that could endanger society and the state.” Bakor Pakem normally sits under the intelligence division of the public prosecution office, and works closely with the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the police, the military, local governments, and religious establishments.

Bakor Pakem has been extremely influential when pressing the government to ban religious groups, Human Rights Watch said. Bakor Pakem recommended the banning of the Ahmadiyah faith in April 2008, and two months later it was banned. In Dharmasraya, West Sumatra, Bakor Pakem led the prosecution of Alexander An, an administrator of the “Minang Atheist” Facebook group. He was eventually acquitted of blasphemy but in June 2012 the Sijunjung court sentenced him to two-and-a-half years in prison and a fine of IDR100 million (around US$11,000), for inciting public unrest via his Facebook account.

Bakor Pakem also played a role in initiating the prosecution of Andreas Guntur, the leader of the spiritual group Amanat Keagungan Ilahi, who was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment in March 2012 by the Klaten court, Central Java, for blasphemy for alleged unconventional Islamic teachings.

Indonesia is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which provides in article 18 that “[e]veryone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include 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. … No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.”

“The Indonesian government has permitted Bakor Pakem to actively pursue the prosecution of religious figures for blasphemy,” Pearson said. “The government should end the practice of a body espousing discriminatory religious beliefs having a say in the criminal justice system.”

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