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

Indonesian authorities wielding the country’s dangerously ambiguous blasphemy law have claimed another victim: Siti Aisyah, the owner of an Islamic school in Mataram, Lombok Island. On Monday, a Mataram court sentenced Aisyah to 30 months in prison for “strange teachings,” which included advising students to restrict their beliefs to the content of the Quran and to ignore other books on the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings.

Media reports of those teachings prompted West Nusa Tenggara Governor Zainul Majdi to order the closure of Aisyah’s school in January and to ask local police to open an investigation of possible blasphemy law violations. The Mataram chapter of the Indonesian Ulama Council, an umbrella of Muslim groups in Indonesia, issued a non-legally-binding edict to the police on January 31 that Aisyah had committed blasphemy.

Aisyah is the sixteenth person prosecuted and imprisoned on blasphemy charges since President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo took office in October 2014. Indonesia’s blasphemy law was passed in 1965 and punishes deviations from the central tenets of Indonesia’s six officially recognized religions with up to five years in prison.

The law has been used to prosecute and imprison members of religious minorities and traditional religions. Recent victims include three former leaders of the Gafatar religious community following the violent forced eviction of more than 7,000 Gafatar members from their farms on Kalimantan Island last year. Another was former Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Purnama, sentenced to two years in prison in May. Despite the repeated misuse of the law, Indonesia’s Religious Affairs Ministry is seeking to reinforce and expand its scope through the so-called religious rights protection bill, which parliament is likely to debate in late 2017.

The government’s unwillingness to substantially amend or repeal Indonesia’s blasphemy law suggests that it will continue to pander to bigotry and discrimination at the expense of fundamental rights to freedom of belief and expression. So long as the blasphemy law remains on the books, the Indonesian justice system will prosecute and imprison people like Siti Aisyah for “strange teachings” and other specious accusations.

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