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Last July, violence erupted when municipal police and hundreds of people organized by militant Islamist groups tried to break into an Ahmadiyah mosque in Manis Lor village, West Java.
At the time, I made an eerily prescient statement to the media: “When the Indonesian authorities sacrifice the rights of religious minorities to appease hard-line Islamist groups, this simply causes more violence. While the police rightly stopped mobs from entering the mosque, their failure to arrest a single person will only embolden these groups to use violence again.”
Seven months later, on Feb. 6, a mob of some 1,500 people struck again in western Java, attacking about 20 Ahmadiyah members in Cikeusik village, Banten.
This time the mob broke in, destroyed and burned a house, van and motorcycle. They ordered the Ahmadiyah men to strip naked, and video footage shows them being gruesomely beaten with wooden sticks, hoes and machetes. Three died and six were wounded.
Militant Islamist groups clearly feel emboldened by the police’s failure to respond to attacks against religious minorities.
This effective impunity, combined with the government’s support for an anti-Ahmadiyah decree and Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali’s call for an outright ban on Ahmadiyah, has sent a message that the Ahmadis are fair game.
Yet when Ahmadiyah members try to protect themselves from violence, conspiracy theorists and some journalists and bloggers accuse them of making it all up and provoking attacks.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has rightly ordered a full investigation into the Feb. 6 killings, including into the police response. On Feb. 11, National Police Chief Gen. Timur Pradopo removed the chief of the Banten Police, Brig. Gen. Agus Kusnadi, and the Pandeglang Police chief commissionaire, Fauzy Rasyad, who was in charge of Cikeusik.
Yudhoyono has also ordered that groups advocating violence should be shut down. But his administration should have acted earlier to prevent these killings by publicly upholding minority communities’ right to religious freedom and ensuring their protection in the face of growing attacks.
Yudhoyono should revoke the 2008 decree that requires the Ahmadiyah community to “stop spreading interpretations and activities that deviate from the principal teachings of Islam.” Violations of the decree can result in prison sentences of up to five years.
But three days after the attack, Suryadharma yet again called on the Yudhoyono cabinet to ban Ahmadiyah. He argued that the ban should be based on a 2005 edict issued by the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI) and the 2008 decree. Yudhoyono should publicly refute these comments.
Since the edict and the decree, vigilante groups have increasingly attacked the Ahmadiyah community.
Following the 2005 edict, Islamist groups attacked the Ahmadiyah headquarters near Bogor. Assaults on Ahmadiyah members were reported in East Lombok, Manis Lor, Tasikmalaya, Parung, Garut, Ciaruteun and Sadasari.
Attacks continued in 2006, forcing 187 Ahmadis to flee to a camp for displaced persons in Lombok after mobs destroyed their homes and mosques. In December 2007, mobs attacked Ahmadiyah followers in Kuningan, West Java.
Following the June 2008 decree, things got even worse. In 2008, Islamist militia groups attacked an interfaith gathering at the National Monument in Jakarta, beating activists and threatening to attack prominent figures like former President Abdurrahman Wahid, presidential adviser Adnan Buyung Nasution and rights commissioner Asmara Nababan.
In 2008 and 2009, there was anti-Ahmadiyah violence across the archipelago - Ternate, Lombok, West Java, West Sumatra, Southeast Sulawesi, North Sulawesi and across Kalimantan. Then, in July 2010, came the Manis Lor attack.
Just a week before this month’s Cikeusik attack, on Jan. 28, police “evacuated” members of an Ahmadiyah congregation from its mosque in Makassar, the capital of South Sulawesi, amid increasingly threatening protests by the hard-line Islamic Defenders Front (FPI). Militants then attacked the mosque, destroying property and windows.
Throughout these attacks, police have often been present and have sometimes tried to negotiate or safely remove the Ahmadis before violence started. But police have failed spectacularly in preventing attacks or holding those fomenting religious violence accountable.
As a result of what happened in Manis Lor, Ahmadiyah leaders felt compelled to bring attention to attacks on their members and mosques in order to make the violence stop.
They set up an emergency team to help Ahmadiyah communities in danger and trained advocates to negotiate with the police.
The Ahmadiyah board also asked a TV station in Jakarta to train some Ahmadis as journalists - to prepare news stories, verify information and use cameras. The video journalist who recorded the Cikeusik violence was one of these Ahmadiyah activists.
Based on the police’s poor track record, the Islamists involved in Cikeusik are probably surprised that they may be held accountable for the attack that killed three. So far, police have arrested at least six suspects.
Given the clear evidence of criminal offenses on the video, police should ensure they redouble their efforts to find and arrest all the perpetrators.
And if Yudhoyono is serious about ending religious violence, he should do more than ensure that the police adequately investigate this tragedy. He should quickly revoke the decree that whips up this sentiment.
Elaine Pearson is deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.