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Activists: Indonesia Hands Down Uneven, Unpredictable Justice

A group of Indonesian Muslims accused of attacking Ahmadiyah followers wait in a cell at a court room in Serang, Indonesia's Banten province July 28, 2011.

Last month, an Indonesian court sparked outrage over the light sentences handed out to 12 people accused of a deadly riot. The accused were part of a mob that targeted members of the Ahmadiyah Muslim minority sect, killing three of them.

Analysts say the light sentences were an example of what they say is Indonesia’s uneven justice system that can hand down unpredictable sentences.

An example is the case of Irwan Kristanto, who has been locked behind the doors of Pondok Rajeg prison for five months now. He is allowed to have visitors, but can not give a recorded interview.

The frail 29 year-old looks like he is barely 20. He explains that life here has been tough.

As a thief, the shy young man is forbidden to work in the orchard garden that stands in the middle of the concrete block. That is a job only accessible for those on a narcotics-related offense. But Irwan’s case is different from the murderers serving 20 year sentences. His crime was stealing two computer memory cards from an Internet café. Net value: $40.

Antonius Badar follows the Irwan case for the Indonesian legal aid group LBH Masyarakat. On Monday, he is visited Irwan’s parents, Hendri and Siti, to make sure they managed to get a copy of their son’s judgment.

“Sometimes, the district court doesn’t give this letter to the prison," Badar says. "And the prison doesn’t know how long the prisoner should be in the prison. If Irwan didn’t have this letter, he could stay longer in prison.”

Irwan’s father, Hendri, describes a case that, he says, should not have ended with a young man with no prior police record sent to a hardcore jail.

Last February, he says, Irwan was spending time in an internet café, wondering how to better provide for his newly pregnant wife. In the spur of the moment he steals the two memory cards and leaves. But he forgot his cell phone and when he later returns to retrieve it, he is caught and sent to the police. A court later sentences him to 6 months in jail.

Rizal, owner of the Internet café, says that he now regrets having called the police. After a few hours Irwan apologized and his parents reimbursed the cost of the memory cards. Rizal says there was no real damage done and that should have been taken into account by the court.

Leopold Sudaryono, a researcher for the Asia Foundation, says the police have a quota system with financial incentives to prosecute such petty crimes.

“They have very limited amount of budget to process cases every month while at the same time each police station has quotas, a minimum amount of cases they have to bring to justice," Sudaryono says. "Meaning what they are doing, they have to press charges for very petty crimes which will not require many operational costs to investigate. And usually the prosecutors just carry on with the cases.”

But there are other factors that contribute to uneven sentencing, which are highlighted in the Ahmadiyah case.

The maximum sentence given to the 12 people accused of taking part of the deadly attack on the minority sect was 6 months in jail. That is the same sentence Irwan received for his petty theft offense.

Leopold Sudaryono blames the police for the stark difference in the two sentences. He says police undermined the Ahmadiyah case after officers were widely accused of failing to stop the mob attack.

“So it is in the interest of the police, in the investigation of the case, not to substantiate that the violence is orchestrated," he says."If they investigate the case and provide the evidence otherwise, they will cut their own neck! That’s why they refer the case to the prosecutor as a weak case.”

Last week, Indonesia's foreign minister refused to comment on the verdict or whether such light sentences would encourage more violence. Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa told reporters the problem of religious intolerance is not Indonesia's alone.

"I'm afraid when we speak of, for example, the whole issue of now outside the domain of the court, about the whole issue of religious intolerance or intolerance in general and all kinds of phobia, I'm afraid Indonesia doesn't have a monopoly on that, unfortunately," he said.

Indonesian public opinion polls indicate that law enforcement agencies are the least trusted institutions.

Irwan, the convicted thief, says as harsh as his sentence was, he has fared relatively well. He should be released on August 27, just in time he hopes, to be home for the birth of his first child, a baby girl, due on the same day.