Friday, July 29, 2011

Indonesia's Verdict of Shame

Religious extremists get a light tap from the court in Ahmadiyah mob murder
I still cannot get one sound from the Feb. 6 Cikeusik mob attack on a handful of Ahmadiyah followers out of my head. At some point the shouting and mayhem, which millions have seen on YouTube, seems to subside as a lifeless body in the mud is beaten with wooden staves. There follows a series of sickening wet slaps against the corpse as a crowd shouts in approval.

But that man and two other victims were not murdered, according to prosecutors who chose the lightest possible charges to throw up against the clearly identifiable suspects in the Banten province attack. On Thursday, a court made it official, handing out sentences of three to six months to 12 men accused of leading and carrying out the assault.

Dani bin Misra, a 17-year-old, smashed a victim’s skull with a stone; he was charged with manslaughter and got three months. The leader of the mob of about 1,000 people who attacked 20 Ahmadis, Idris bin Mahdani, was convicted of illegal possession of a machete and got five months and 15 days in jail.

In other words, murder — organized, premeditated and captured on video — is not much more of a crime than stealing a bunch of bananas. In Indonesia, it appears, you can get away with murder, as long as the killing is done in the name of religion.

Prosecutors actually recommended light sentences because they said Ahmadiyah members partly provoked the attack by being in the village and then compounded their error by filming and distributing videos of the attack. This is a bit like saying a woman is to blame for being raped because she wore a skirt.

The sad truth is that Indonesia, despite its progress on so many fronts, still allows preachers of hate to foment criminal acts against others. In this upside-down world, Ahmadiyah followers can be killed for their belief that their prophet came after Mohammed. They are fair game.

Thursday’s court verdict seems likely to spur still more mob terror since the crime carries virtually no punishment and the government does so little to speak out against such heinous acts.

This is a frightening black mark on a nation that prides itself on being a bastion of tolerance guided by Pancasila, whose first pillar is religious freedom and whose second is Kemanusiaan yang Adil dan Beradab, which states that all people should be treated with dignity as creatures of God.

This is not the first time such an outrage has gone virtually unpunished. Just two days after the Cikeusik killings, a mob in Temanggung, Central Java, ran riot in reaction to a blasphemy verdict. They were angry because a Christian accused of defaming Islam got only a five-year sentence — mind you, he killed no one.

That mob burned churches and buildings and injured bystanders. Most of the accused were given five-month sentences by a Semarang court last month. The ring leader, a cleric, got a year’s sentence, which was reduced by several months for time served.

What is so deeply alarming about the Cikeusik verdicts and other outrages, however, is the absence of reasoned and consistent leadership from the top reaches of government to set a tone of tolerance in the face of criminal acts committed in the name of religion.

The lesson to the people is that such attacks are understandable; the victims learn that they are without rights.

Of course, I do not mean to suggest that the government interfere in individual court cases but rather that it has a duty to uphold tolerance and speak up for the rule of law.

We already have the current spectacle of former Democratic Party official Muhammad Nazaruddin and others accused in various corruption cases fleeing from justice, seemingly with ease. Add to that mobs of thugs basically running free because prosecutors refuse to see their crimes for what they are and it looks as if we have no meaningful and consistent laws.

Last week I was in Tokyo, one of Asia’s most sophisticated cities, and an elegant woman running a gift shop asked me where I lived. “Indonesia!” she repeated with approval. “That country is very good. Japan is going down.” Imagine hearing that a decade ago.

The impression that Indonesia is a major success story is increasingly widespread. But don’t take it for granted. Mob rule, disrespect for the law and courts that treat killers with kid gloves are also still part of Indonesia’s story.

I hope the sound of a club beating against dead flesh does not one day drown out the good news that is far more prevalent in Indonesia.

(By A. Lin Neumann senior adviser to the Jakarta Globe and a co-founder of Asia Sentinel. Reprinted with permission from the Jakarta Globe.)

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