Indonesia’s Supreme Court this week rejected the appeal by an ethnic-Chinese Indonesian woman who was sentenced to 18 months in prison last August for violating the country’s blasphemy law, a decision international rights groups called a troubling precedent.
The Buddhist woman, Meliana, 44, was convicted of blasphemy for requesting that a mosque near her residence in Tanjung Balai, North Sumatra, turn down the volume of its evening call-to-prayer. She had made the complaint privately to her neighbor, which set off riots, arsons, a police report, and eventually, an upheld conviction.
Deemed by rights groups, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, as a troublesome legal precedent, Meliana’s case started in 2016, when her complaint made its way around the fishing town. As it spread through neighborhoods and on social media, perceptions became all the more distorted — with many people saying that she had committed blasphemy.
A mob rioted in front of her house — where she lived with her husband and four children — shouting obscenities, throwing bottles and rocks at her house, and setting fire to some of the town’s Buddhist temples.
The North Sumatra chapter of the Indonesian Ulema Council said in 2017 that her complaint sullied Islam. Conversely, her conviction sparked public outrage and support from organizations such as Indonesia’s Institute for Criminal Justice Reform and the National Commission on Violence Against Women.
Ranto Sibarani, Meliana’s lawyer, told VOA that he and his client will file another appeal. “Yesterday we discussed the plan at the Tanjung Gusta [penitentiary for women in Medan, North Sumatra],” he said. Last year, he claimed that Meliana’s conviction, due to questionable legal proceedings, was predicated on hearsay and intimidation.
Ranto said the counsel team maintains that its client’s conviction is an error. “We still believe that [the reason for her conviction was predicated on hoax]. Both the investigators and the police admitted to the media that they have identified many sources of false information regarding Meliana, but none of them have been tried,” he said.
Indonesia’s Supreme Court announced the rejection of the appeal on its website and did not give a reason for the decision. Ranto added that his team has yet to receive an official notice of the court ruling.
Indonesia’s blasphemy law was signed in 1965 by Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, as a way to appease a request made by religious groups to suppress the growth of indigenous beliefs. Twenty-three people, including Meliana, have been sentenced under that law since the country's current president, Joko Widodo, who’s running for a second-term in office this year, took office in 2014, Human Rights Watch said in October.
The law, carrying a maximum five-year prison sentence, “punishes deviations from the central tenets of Indonesia’s six officially recognized religions – Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism ..,” according to Andreas Harsono, a researcher with the Human Rights Watch.
Harsono told VOA the case was emblematic of discrimination against minorities in the country. “The victims are mostly those who are critical, particularly those who are critical and believe in non-Sunni religions,” Andreas said.
There have been a number of attempts to revoke the law. Three petitions were rejected from 2009 to 2018 by Indonesia’s Constitutional Court, including the one filed by members of Indonesia’s Ahmadiyah group, a religious minority. Indonesia’s former president, Abdurrahman Wahid, also was involved in a 2009 petition.
“The law has elastic clauses: There’s no standard measurements; it's easy to be deployed for political purposes,” Andreas said.
One of the widely-publicized blasphemy cases involved former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who served an almost two-year prison sentence and was released in January. He was arrested for insulting Islam, after making a quip about a passage in the Quran during a 2016 speech. His arrest is believed to have galvanized a formidable religious force in Indonesian politics.
As Indonesia's presidential and legislative Indonesian elections approach next week, observers will closely watch how the blasphemy law will be carried out by each candidate. Joko Widodo will square off against the former military commander Prabowo Subianto.
“The blasphemy law is the hardest to revoke among the other unjust laws,” Andreas said.