When criminal court judges are fearful of dishing out tough punishment or, worse, allow a certain empathy for the accused to colour their judgment, it is important to look higher up the chain for the underlying reason.
In the case of the leaders of the mob who murdered three members of the Ahmadiyah sect last February, it comes down to the way the Government treats Islamic terrorists differently from other religious radicals who may not bomb but terrorize all the same.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s administration clearly sees the terrorists as a direct challenge to the state, ignoring the more insidious threat mainstream extremists pose to the Constitution and the rule of law.
As a result, while Indonesia gets deserved praise for the success of its anti-terrorism campaign, its much-vaunted reputation for moderation and religious tolerance has paradoxically undergone a significant erosion at the same time.
There may well be a connection. Anxious not to appear as if it is at war with Islam, the government is consciously leaning the other way when it comes to other hardline groups who flirt with the law.
In its latest report, the United States- based Pew Research Centre groups Indonesia with Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Somalia, Nigeria and Bangladesh as countries where social hostilities and government restrictions involving religion are the highest in the world.
The ludicrously light three- to six-month jail terms handed out to the 12 defendants accused of killing the three Ahmadis in the western Java province of Banten is the worst example yet of how the tyranny of the majority has been allowed to prosper.
The sentences were even less than the seven months demanded by prosecutors and fell well below the maximum penalty of 12 years, with a teenage boy receiving just three months for using a stone to beat to death one of the helpless victims.
It was obvious from the start of the trial that prosecutors and judges alike were cowed by the hundreds of hardliners who showed up for each court session in what was once the heartland of Darul Islam, the movement that fought for an Islamic state in the 1950s.
Prosecutors even told the court that despite a horrifying, secretly filmed video of the incident, the victims’ refusal to flee the house where they had futilely tried to hold off the mob contributed to the violence and justified a reduced sentence.
Rather than acting as a deterrent, the sentences will almost certainly encourage further persecution of an Islamic sect, widely regarded as heretic, whose numbers range from the government figure of 50,000 to 80,000 to its own estimate of 400,000.
Sadly, the government finds itself in a cleft stick, realising that if it bans the sect it will not only be breaching the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion, but also officially declaring open season on its adherents.
Already under pressure in Muslim- dominated neighbourhoods, where churches can be built only with the approval of the majority of the local populace, Christians fear the increased intimidation will not end there. They have good cause to worry.
Four days after the Banten court handed down its verdict, mobs burned down three supposedly ‘illegal’ churches in Sumatra’s Riau province, the latest of 200 such attacks in the past five years and the 17th this year.
Last February, three churches were destroyed in Central Java, in protest over a court’s decision not to sentence a Christian man to death for defaming Islam. He had already received a five-year prison term, the maximum allowed under law.
The government’s timid attitude is also reflected in the lack of law enforcement that only exacerbates religious tensions. As in Banten, police more often than not stand idly by when thuggish groups like the Islamic Defenders Front go on the rampage.
Indonesia has long been held up as a shining example of religious tolerance and a nation where democracy and Islam co-exist in harmony. In that, it is rightfully held to much higher standards.
One Jakarta-based security firm told its clients recently that if Indonesia maintains its current trajectory, “the trend will transcend the realm of religion and affect other factors, such as the overall state of security and the business and investment climate”.
“At worst,” it warned, “it could lead to increased acts of terrorism and possibly a re-occurrence of the sectarian violence that nearly tore Indonesia asunder during the early post-Suharto period over a decade ago.”
Reprinted courtesy of Straits Times Indonesia.
Copyright 2010 The Jakarta Globe