The blasphemy conviction of Jakarta’s ousted Christian governor has rallied international support for the leader and pleas for Indonesia to repeal its laws against blasphemy, a punishable crime in more than 50 countries.
Screen capture from Al-Jazeera
Jakarta, Indonesia former governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a Chinese Christian, was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to 2 years in prison for comments he made during his 2016 campaign for re-election.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), European Union representatives, Amnesty International, International Christian Concern (ICC), Human Rights Watch (HRW), and representatives of the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) are among those advocating on behalf of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as “Ahok.”
Purnama is serving a two-year prison sentence at Cipinang prison in East Jakarta after his May 9th conviction for statements he made during his 2016 reelection campaign for governor (mayor), although prosecutors recommended two years of probation. The case against Purnama was based on statements he made in September 2016 refuting political opponents who told Muslims that voting for Purnama, a Christian, would violate teachings in the Quran.
While international human rights groups recognize Indonesia’s purported commitment to religious tolerance and pluralism, some say the country’s blasphemy laws are used for intimidation and should be repealed.
“USCIRF remains very concerned with countries such as Indonesia that have blasphemy laws. These laws are used to intimidate and harass individuals, including religious dissenters and minorities and violate their freedom of religion and belief,” USCIRF chair Thomas J. Reese said after Purnama’s conviction. “We call on the Indonesian government at the central, provincial, and local levels to comply with the Indonesian constitution and international human rights standards.”
Indonesia’s 1945 constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but only officially recognizes Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Confucianism, Buddhism and Hinduism, according to a May 13th analysis in the Sidney Morning Herald.
Purnama was convicted under Article 156(a) of the Indonesian Penal Code. According to a January 2017 report by the Library of Congress, the law “provides for a person to be subject to up to five years of imprisonment if he or she ‘deliberately in public gives expression to feelings or commits an act … which principally have the character of being at enmity with, abusing or staining a religion, adhered to in Indonesia; or … with the intention to prevent a person to adhere to any religion based on the belief of the almighty God.’”
USCIRF Vice Chairman Daniel Mark, who traveled to Indonesia in 2015 to assess religious freedom conditions, said the country should repeal article 156(a) of the Penal Code and unconditionally release anyone sentenced for “deviancy,” “denigrating religion,” or “blasphemy.” USCIRF has since 2004 listed Indonesia in its annual report as a Tier 2 nation where religious violations carried out or tolerated by the government are systematic, ongoing and/or egregious.
Indonesia rarely enforced its blasphemy law before the presidency of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. But at least 106 people were convicted of blasphemy during his term between 2005 and 2014, according to Amnesty International statistics.
Champa Patel, Amnesty’s director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, said Purnama’s case demonstrates the injustice of Indonesia’s blasphemy laws, upheld in court as recently as 2010. The laws allow the imprisonment of individuals for exercising freedoms protected under international human rights laws, including freedom of thought, expression, conscience or religion, according to Amnesty.
“This verdict demonstrates the inherent injustice of Indonesia’s blasphemy law, which should be repealed immediately,” Patel said. “Despite protests of his (Purnama’s) innocence and evidence that his words were manipulated for political purposes, he has been sentenced to two years in jail. The verdict will tarnish Indonesia’s reputation as a tolerant nation.” Purnama is appealing the verdict.
In March, Indonesia jailed three ex-leaders of the Islamic group Gafatar for offending Islamic values, noting that the group does not consider prayers obligatory, the Sidney Morning Times reported. Islamic clerics describe Gafatar as a deviant sect.
Internationally, blasphemy laws are enforced in a quarter of the world’s countries and territories, the Pew Research Center said in statistics released in 2016, based on 2014 studies. Blasphemy laws are most prevalent in the Middle East and North Africa, where 18 of the 20 countries, or 90 percent, enforce such measures. Blasphemy laws are enforced in all regions of the globe, including 24 percent of Asia-Pacific countries (12 of 50), Pew said.
Blasphemy laws are less common in sub-Saharan Africa, where only four of the 48 countries enforce them; and in Europe, where blasphemy is criminalized in seven of 45 countries, Pew said.
In the Americas, 10 of 35 countries criminalize blasphemy, including the Bahamas, where the publication or sale of blasphemous material is punishable by up to two years in prison, Pew said.
While blasphemy is not criminalized in the U.S., a few states, including Massachusetts and Michigan, have blasphemy laws on the books that are not enforced, Pew said.
In Pennsylvania, a blasphemy law was enacted in 1977 to prevent blasphemy in corporate names, but was struck down by a district court in 2010, the Jewish Social Policy Action Network (JSPAN) reported. Pennsylvania’s law prohibited corporate names from containing “words that constitute blasphemy, profane cursing or swearing or that profane the Lord’s name,” JSPAN reported when the law was overturned.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Diana Chandler is Baptist Press’ general assignment writer/editor.)