The Indonesian government’s persecution of the Gafatar religious community resulted in blasphemy convictions today of three of the group’s leaders. A Jakarta court handed down five-year prison terms to both Gafatar’s founder, Ahmad Moshaddeq, and president, Mahful Muis Tumanurung, while the group’s vice-president received a three-year sentence. The judge ruled the three men had “tarnished one of the religions in Indonesia deliberately in public.”

Two men remove the Indonesian flag while the compound of the Gafatar religious group burns after being set on fire by villagers in Mempawah regency, in Indonesia’s West Kalimantan province on January 18, 2016. 

© 2016 Antara Foto/Reuters

The convictions follow the government’s anti-Gafatar campaign that began in January 2016, when security forces in West and East Kalimantan provinces stood by while ethnic Malay and Dayak mobs looted and destroyed Gafatar property. Government officials then transferred Gafatar members to unofficial detention centers and from there to their hometowns, not as a short-term safety measure, but evidently to end their presence on the island and dissolve the religious group.

Those forced evictions and detentions followed a wave of public animosity against the group fueled by media reports of allegations by relatives of Gafatar members that the community engaged in abductions and forced recruitment. The Gafatar have long generated public suspicion due to their belief system, which combines Islam with Christian and Jewish beliefs, leading to accusations of “deviant teachings.”

The anti-Gafatar campaign is a chilling reminder of the willingness of government officials to deny basic rights to security and religious freedom to religious minorities. Human Rights Watch has documented dozens of examples of similar abuses over the past decade targeting Shia Muslims, the Ahmadiyah, and some Christian congregations. Today’s court convictions underscore the urgent need for the government to abolish Indonesia’s blasphemy law, which punishes deviations from the central tenets of Indonesia’s six officially recognized religions with up to five years in prison. The government has wielded the law to prosecute and imprison members of religious minorities and of traditional religions and used it as the legal basis for a number of government regulations that facilitate official discrimination on the basis of religion.

Until President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo delivers on his pledge to promote religious pluralism in Indonesia and abolishes the blasphemy law, Gafatar’s leaders won’t be the last people jailed for “deviant” beliefs.