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by Stephen Coates Stephen Coates – Tue Apr 20, 2:16 am ET
JAKARTA (AFP) – Human rights groups pilloried Indonesia’s constitutional court Tuesday after it upheld a 1965 blasphemy law, ruling in favour of orthodox religions over basic freedoms.
The court on Monday rejected a petition by moderate Muslims, religious minorities, democracy advocates and rights groups against the law, in a case seen as a major test of the mainly Muslim country’s pluralism.
By a margin of eight to one, the judges ruled that the law was imperfect but did not contravene the constitution of the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country, which guarantees freedoms of belief and expression.
The law carries a maximum punishment of five years for beliefs that deviate from the orthodox versions of six sanctioned faiths: Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Catholicism, Protestantism and Confucianism.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom, a non-partisan body that advises the US government, said the ruling may embolden religious extremists and foster sectarian strife.
“Hopefully, the Indonesian government will recognise that overturning the blasphemy decree advances its fight against terrorism and extremism, and enhances its reputation for religious tolerance and pluralism,” commission chairman Leonard Leo said.
The law – which effectively outlaws blasphemy as well as heresy – was used in 2008 to force followers of the Islamic Ahmadiyah sect to go underground and is often cited by minorities as a source of discrimination and intimidation.
Islamic extremists packed the court throughout the hearings, heckled witnesses for the petitioners and allegedly assaulted their lawyers on the last day. They greeted the ruling with shouts of “Allahu Akbar” (God is greater).
About 500 police were deployed around the court due to concerns that a ruling against the law would trigger violence by militants from the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a vigilante group.
Several of the judges said they agreed with the testimony of Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali and Justice and Human Rights Minister Patrialis Akbar that the law was needed to protect minorities from violence.
FPI official Sobri Lubis also claimed the law was vital to maintain religious harmony in the vast archipelago of 234 million people, 90 percent of whom are Muslims.
“We’re very happy with the verdict… This will bring peace of mind to the people,” he said.
US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) however said the ruling “dealt a severe blow to religious freedom” in the world’s third-largest democracy, which President Barack Obama is scheduled to visit in June.
“Indonesia?s laws should protect those who peacefully express religious views and punish those who threaten to use violence against others, not the other way around,” HRW deputy Asia director Elaine Pearson said.
“If the government wants to prevent violence, it should send a message by punishing violent behaviour.”
US expert Professor Cole Durham, who testified via videolink on behalf of the petitioners, said the decision “represents a missed opportunity” to reconcile the law with Indonesia’s international treaty obligations on human rights and bring the country into line with the trend in other democratic countries.
“This legislation empowers those in dominant religions to persecute and discriminate against those holding divergent views, and this in turn will exacerbate religious tensions in society,” he told AFP.
Moderate Muslim scholar Ulil Abshar Abdallah said the court did not seem to understand the constitution.
“Our constitution clearly guarantees freedom of expression. The law will become a time bomb in the future as it will muzzle minority groups that are different from the six mainstream religions,” he said.