Rights, Freedom Groups Urge Indonesia Gov't to Repeal Blasphemy Law

Human rights and religious freedom groups are urging Indonesia's government to rid the country of its controversial blasphemy law, which was recently upheld by one of its highest courts.

"We are deeply disappointed by the Constitutional Court's decision, which is a major setback for religious freedom," said Mervyn Thomas, Chief Executive of Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), in a statement following Monday's ruling.

"Indonesia has a proud tradition of religious pluralism, and its constitution guarantees freedom of religion," he added Wednesday, "but the blasphemy law set out in article 156A of the Indonesian Criminal Code violates its own constitution and damages Indonesia's reputation as a pluralistic and tolerant society."

On Monday, in a 8-1 decision, Indonesia's Constitutional Court upheld the country's decades-old blasphemy law, saying that it is needed to maintain public order among religious groups.

"If the Blasphemy Law was scrapped before a new law was enacted … it was feared that misuses and contempt of religion would occur and trigger conflicts in society," explained court justice Akil Mochtar, one of eight judges who upheld the law, according to the Jakarta Post.

The court even claimed that repeal of the restrictions set by the law could make religious minorities targets of violence by intolerant members of the public.

Top government officials who served as witnesses in the court's examination - Suryadharma Ali, minister of religious affairs, and Patrialis Akbar, minister for law and human rights - both argued in favor of the constitutionality of the law, saying that if it were overturned, violent mobs would probably attack religious minorities.

The petitioners in the case, however, argued that the law violated the constitutional right to freedom of expression and Indonesia's obligations under international human rights treaties.

Under the 1965 law, religious groups can be banned, if they "distort" or "misrepresent" any of the country's six official religions – the recognized forms of Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism. Individuals found guilty of heresy, meanwhile, can face up to five years in prison.

"The blasphemy law criminalizes the peaceful expression of certain religious beliefs," explained Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, in a report Monday. "It hangs like a 'Sword of Damocles' over the heads of religious minorities and those who practice traditional religions."

So while the court maintained that the law was necessary for the maintenance of public order, groups such as HRW insist that it would only punish those who peacefully express religious views and protect those who threaten to use violence against others.

"If the government wants to prevent violence, it should send a message by punishing violent behavior," argued Pearson.

Similarly, Leonard Leo, chair of the U.S. Center for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), noted how blasphemy laws are often the cause, not the cure, of sectarian violence and intolerance.

In most predominantly Muslim countries with such laws, prohibitions against blasphemy, heresy, and deviance lead to many cases in which members of the majority persecute religious minorities and unorthodox sects. Religious minorities are frequently victims of discrimination, harassment, and violence.

"The Constitutional Court's decision may have given extremists cover to enforce a version of religious conformity not shared by the majority of Indonesians," Leo stated. "Hopefully, the Indonesian government will recognize that overturning the blasphemy decree advances its fight against terrorism and extremism and enhances its reputation for religious tolerance and pluralism."

Adding to that, CSW's Thomas said his group is urging the Indonesian government to "seriously consider legislating to repeal this law, which infringes religious liberty, contributes to religious tension and conflict and damages Indonesia's democracy and international reputation."

Calls for the repeal of the blasphemy law were led by former Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid, who died on Dec. 30, 2009, and three other Muslim scholars, who worked with seven Indonesian human rights organizations to submit a 59-page appeal to the Constitutional Court on Oct. 28, 2009.

The Constitutional Court of Indonesia, which has the same legal standing as the country's Supreme, has the final say in reviewing law against the Constitution, among its other powers. It comprises nine members - three put forward by the president, three by the Supreme Court and three by the People's Representative Council.

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