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Prison for ‘Minang atheist’

In what critics have condemned as a precedent that may harm free speech and individual liberty, a court in West Sumatra sentenced on Thursday Alexander Aan, 32, to two-and-a-half years in prison for blasphemy and publicly declaring himself an atheist.

The Muaro District Court in Sijunjung regency also fined Alexander Rp 100 million (US$11,100), or face another two months in prison.

The verdict was lighter than the three-and-a-half years without a fine sought by prosecutors.

Alexander may be the first person in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation, to be imprisoned for being an atheist.

In the verdict, presiding judge Eka Prasetya Budi Dharma said Alexander was proven guilty of blasphemy against Islam and insulting the Prophet Muhammad through his personal Facebook account “Alex Aan” and the “Ateis Minang” Facebook group, of which he was an administrator.

“We establish that the defendant committed the act intentionally because he objected when other parties protested his posts and he did not immediately remove a number of posts in the Ateis Minang group despite the fact that as an administrator he had the authority to do so,” said Eka.

According to the judges, Alexander’s actions violated Article 28 of Law No. 11/2008 on Information and Electronic Transactions because he had spread information that had caused hatred and enmity against individuals and groups based on tribal affiliations, religion, race and societal groups (SARA).

The judge also mentioned Alexander’s open declaration that he was an atheist, which could be read by many people. This was not acceptable behavior for a citizen and civil servant under the state ideology of Pancasila and the Constitution, which obliges every citizen to have a religion.

Despite their judicial victory, prosecutors have filed for an appeal. Prosecutor Syahril Jasman said he was not satisfied with the sentence, which he deemed too lenient.

After the trial, Alexander said he accepted the court’s ruling. “I accept the judgment and will abide by it. For me, faith is a personal matter and I have expressed my regret and apology to every party, including my family,” he said.

Alexander offered his apology, expressed his regrets and asked forgiveness from God on Feb. 5, 2012.

His lawyer from the Padang Legal Aid Institute, Deddi Alparesi, said he would file an appeal. “The fine does not make sense because no one was harmed and the defendant would face difficulties in paying it due to his and his family’s financial condition,” said Deddi.

Noted human rights lawyer Todung Mulya Lubis said he was concerned about what had happened to Alexander Aan. “Religion and faith are personal issues. There shouldn’t be any law that regulates what we believe in,” he said on Thursday.

“Our Constitution recognizes our freedom of religion and our rights to express our opinion. His rights must be protected even if he stated that he was an atheist,” he added.

Futhermore, Todung said, it did not mean that Alexander did not believe in God by being an atheist. He said that it was possible that Alexander was just unsatisfied with the existing religious establishments in Indonesia.

According to Todung, the state cannot charge anybody unless they have clearly violated the law, for example by inciting hatred toward a certain religious group.

Erna Ratnaningsih, former head of the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation (YLBHI), said that every citizen had the right to voice their opinions, including ones that were related to religious issues.

Blasphemy cases 2010–2012

March 17, 2010
Ibnu Rachal Farhansyah, a non-Balinese, posts a Facebook status likening Nyepi, the Hindu Day of Silence, to feces.

Feb. 8, 2011
Antonius Richmond Bawengan is sentenced to five years in prison by the Temanggung District Court for his alleged blasphemy against Islam.

March 15, 2012
A local Shiite leader in Sampang, Madura, Tajul Muluk, faces five years in prison for insulting Islam.

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