Indonesian Christian politician sentenced to 5 months in prison for hate speech

Ferdinand Hutahaean speaks in a YouTube video in January 2022.
Ferdinand Hutahaean speaks in a YouTube video in January 2022. | YouTube/VIVACOID

An Indonesian politician has been sentenced to five months in prison on hate speech charges for criticizing Islam in remarks on social media.

Protestant Christian and Democrat Party politician Ferdinand Hutahaean was arrested in January after social backlash over a Twitter comment.

Hutahaean reportedly posted a tweet on Jan. 4 that read: “Poor you, your Allah is evidently weak [and] must be defended. My Allah is amazing, [he] is everything. He is my defender, and my Allah does not need to be defended.”

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According to International Christian Concern (ICC), a panel of judges found Hutahaean guilty of “intentionally spreading fake news causing a stir in society” for the tweet. Last Tuesday, he was sentenced to five months in prison.

Prosecutors had initially suggested a seven-month term instead of the five-month sentence handed down by the judges, ICC reports. 

While Hutahaen initially denied insulting Muslims by claiming he had converted to Islam in 2017, prosecutors rejected his argument and claimed a valid identification card describes him as a Christian, the Jakarta Globe reported.

In an indictment in February, prosecutors said Hutahaen’s “words hurt the feeling of all Muslims across Indonesia and maybe around the world.”

Hutahaean, who lost a bid for a national assembly seat in 2019, was the head of the Democratic Party’s legal division until 2020.

In Muslim-majority Indonesia, non-Muslims are often prosecuted for speaking out against Islam.

Joseph Suyardi and YouTuber Muhammad Kace are other Christians who have recently been arrested and detained by Indonesian officials for insulting Islam. Kace was sentenced last year to 10 years in prison for posting a video that allegedly insulted Islam's prophet, Muhammad. 

"Following the verdict of Muhammed Kace, we are relieved to learn that the final sentence against Ferdinand Hutahaean was mild, but even still, it should never have happened,"  International Christian Concern spokesperson Addison Parker told The Christian Post in a statement.

"Hutahaean isn’t the first Christian politician to be brought down by public outrage, but he is a reminder that Indonesia’s hypersensitivity to the public order has allowed these instances of viral outrage against misunderstandings, disagreements, and religious convictions to become a rhetorical minefield for Christians in the public eye. Religious harmony will struggle to take hold it if it comes only under threat of outrage and prosecution, as these laws only perpetuate a modern-day witch-hunt for violators of speech crimes." 

In 2017, Jakarta's Christian Gov. Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, also known as Ahok, was sentenced to two years in prison in Indonesia after being found guilty of insulting the Islamic faith.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has recommended that the U.S. State Department place Indonesia on its special watch list of countries that engaged in or tolerated violations of religious freedom.

The bipartisan advisory body warns that the Indonesian national government led by President Joko Widodo has pursued a "policy of promoting its favored interpretation of Islam through state efforts that included attempting to revamp the state ideology of Pancasila, establishing a voluntary certification program for religious officials, and installing 'moderate' voices inside the quasi-governmental Indonesia Ulema Council (MUI)."

"However, these measures aimed to combat rising extremist or hardline Islamist trends and to promote tolerance exclusively among officially recognized religions; they did not promote greater religious freedom or expand recognition of other religious minorities," USCIRF stated in its 2021 annual report.

Open Doors USA, an organization that monitors persecution in over 60 countries, ranks Indonesia as the 28th-worst country globally when it comes to Christian persecution.

"There were three attacks on Christians within a six-month period between 2020 and 2021, killing eight believers, while Indonesian society has taken on a more conservative Islamic character, putting added pressure on Christians," an Open Doors factsheet states. "Churches that engage in evangelistic outreach are at risk of being targeted by Islamic extremist groups."

Extremist groups are especially strong in certain areas of Indonesia, such as West Java or Aceh, where anti-Christian views still heavily influence both the population and its politics.

"In some regions, church groups face difficulties getting permission to build churches," the factsheet states. "Even if they manage to fulfill all legal requirements (including winning court cases), the local authorities still often ignore them."

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