Statement

Indonesia: Overturn blasphemy conviction of Jakarta Governor and repeal law

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ARTICLE 19

11 May 2017

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ARTICLE 19 condemns the criminal conviction for “blasphemy” of Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (also known as Ahok), and his sentencing to two year’s imprisonment. The conviction and heavy-handed sentence clearly violate the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief, and will likely reduce the space for open debate and discussion in Indonesia, in particular on matters relating to pluralism, diversity and inclusion.

Ahok was convicted for citing a passage of the Qur’an in the context of his re-election campaign to become Governor of Jakarta in September 2016. He claimed Muslim leaders were manipulating that passage to influence Muslims to vote against him, which led to him losing the election. Prior to his conviction, he was also subject to a travel ban. Ahok is a Christian and ethnically Chinese, which are both minority groups in Muslim-majority Indonesia. He is due to be succeeded as Governor by his opponent in the election contest, Anies Baswedan, who is a Muslim, in October. 

Section 156(a) of the Criminal Code of Indonesia provides up to five years’ imprisonment for “whosoever in public intentionally express their views or engage in actions […] that in principle incite hostilities and considered as abuse or defamation of a religion embraced in

Indonesia.” The Constitution recognizes six such religions: Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Catholicism, Protestantism and Confucianism.

ARTICLE 19 has previously argued to the Constitutional Court of Indonesia that Section 156(a) of the Criminal Code, and the 1965 Presidential decision from which it and other discriminatory provisions originate, violate Indonesia’s obligations under international human rights law. While the Constitutional Court rejected the petition to declare the law unconstitutional in 2010, they did find that it should be made clearer.

Reviewing Indonesia’s compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in 2013, the UN Human Rights Committee was critical of the Constitutional Court’s 2010 decision, and urged the repeal of Section 156(a) of the Criminal Code. This recommendation finds support in numerous developments to international human rights law standards that have taken place since the Indonesian Constitutional Court last addressed this issue. 

The UN Human Rights Committee itself made clear in General Comment No. 34 (2011) that “prohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, are incompatible with [the ICCPR]” and in particular that it would not be permissible for such prohibitions to be used “to prevent or punish criticism of religious leaders or commentary on religious doctrine and tenets of faith.” 

ARTICLE 19 has long argued that blasphemy laws violate the right to freedom of expression for three reasons:

  • The right to freedom of religion or belief attaches to individuals, and cannot be invoked to justify limitations on the right to freedom of expression for the purpose of protecting religions or beliefs per se from adverse comment or criticism;
  • Blasphemy laws are frequently used to prevent and punish the expression of dissenting or controversial views, inhibiting open debate, encouraging self-censorship, and sowing distrust within and between different religion or belief communities;
  • Blasphemy laws are often discriminatory in their impact, targeting religion or belief minorities, as well as dissenters within majority religion or belief communities.  

Blasphemy laws are therefore often counter-productive to the purposes governments frequently invoke to justify their use.

These are among the reasons that the OHCHR-led Rabat Plan of Action (2012) recommends the repeal of blasphemy laws. Several UN Human Rights Council (UN HRC) special procedures also take this stance, including the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief (March 2017) and the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (2015). Fellow UN Member States also recommended the repeal of Section 156(a) of the Criminal Code during Indonesia’s recent Universal Periodic Review (3 May 2017).

UN HRC resolution 16/18, adopted in 2011, marked a shift in the international community’s response to religious intolerance. Dropping divisive calls for States to combat “defamation of religions”, the resolution represented consensus agreement on a package of positive and non-coercive measures to open space for dialogue and understanding within and between different religion and belief communities. The criminal law is foreseen as an exceptional and last resort measure, and only in response to “incitement to imminent violence on the basis of religion or belief.” Indonesia has been a vocal supporter of the resolution, and participated actively in the Istanbul Process, an inter-governmental series of meetings on the implementation of the resolution’s action plan.

ARTICLE 19 considers the criminal blasphemy conviction and two-year sentence of Ahok marks a dangerous moment for freedom of expression in Indonesia. We urge the Indonesian government to quash Ahok’s conviction and release him, and to repeal Section 156(a) of the Criminal Code, together with the 1965 Presidential decision and all laws adopted pursuant to it, without delay.

President Joko Widodo must unequivocally condemn the conviction and initiate an inclusive national dialogue on the actions needed to protect the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief for all people in Indonesia, in line with UN HRC resolution 16/18 and the OHCHR’s Rabat Plan of Action.