Indonesia Puts Execution of Catholics on Hold

Patrick Goodenough | International Editor | Monday, April 03, 2006

Indonesia Puts Execution of Catholics on Hold

(CNSNews.com) - Authorities in Indonesia at the eleventh-hour postponed the planned execution of three Catholics convicted of spearheading violence against Muslims during a wave of bloodshed in Central Sulawesi province in 2000-2001.

Fabianus Tibo, Dominggus da Silva and Marianus Riwu were supposed to be executed by firing squad on Friday or Saturday, but judicial authorities announced a delay, citing "technical reasons" without elaborating, Indonesian media reported.

Just days earlier, Pope Benedict XVI sent a message of support to the three by way of an Indonesian Catholic leader.

The three men convicted in April 2001 of involvement in incidents of premeditated murder.

Appeals against their death sentences failed late in 2001 and again in March 2004.

They then appealed for clemency, but President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono - the country's first directly elected president who took office in 2004 - turned them down last November.

Last week, with time running out, their lawyers said they were applying one last time for clemency.

Between 1999 and 2002, thousands of people died in clashes between Christians and Muslims in Central Sulawesi and another province, Maluku. The two island provinces have sizeable Christian populations in what is otherwise a predominantly Muslim archipelago.

In Sulawesi, the mostly Christian town of Poso saw the worst of the carnage, which was reported to have had its origins in a fight between drunken Muslim and Christian youths at the end of 1998.

Two communities that had long lived in harmony clashed. Researchers cite political factors, including a struggle for local government positions; economic factors, such as competition for land and access to markets for cash crops; and religious factors, including accusations of Christian missionary activity and Islamic jihad.

Later, the religious nature of the conflict became more marked with the arrival of Laskar Jihad, a radical Islamist militia from Indonesia's main island of Java.

Fighters from Laskar Jihad were involved in the Maluku violence early on, and arrived in Sulawesi in mid-2001, setting off a new round of attacks there.

Laskar Jihad member Ayip Syafruddin wrote in a statement published by the group at the time -- a bid to justify the fighters' deployment to Poso -- that one of the underlying reasons for the tensions was "the ambitiousness of [Christian] missionaries in the region to convert Muslims into non-believers."

Human rights groups said security forces turned a blind eye to attacks by groups from both communities, and on occasion Christians accused soldiers of siding with Muslims against them. Tens of thousands of people fled their homes to escape the fighting.

A government-sponsored peace deal was eventually signed in December 2001. Violence has flared on occasion since then, including in May 2005 when 22 people were killed in a market place bombing, and five months later, when masked men beheaded three Christian schoolgirls.

The case against the three men on death row goes back to April-May 2000, when the conflict took a turn for the worse and the two sides began to wear different colored apparel to identify themselves.

Tibo, now aged 60, was accused of heading a "red group" fighting against a Muslim "white group" and held responsible for a series of revenge attacks against Muslim villages in May 2000, when dozens of Muslims were killed.

Tibo, da Silva, 42, and Riwu, 48, were arrested and put on trial in Palu, the provincial capital. Observers said the trial was marred by questionable evidence and violent Muslim protests outside the district court building.

At the climax of the trial, Tibo publicly named 16 people, including two local officials, whom he said were the real masterminds of the Poso conflict.

Human Rights Watch said in a later report the court had "failed to conduct the trial professionally."

Supporters of the trio say they have been made scapegoats to protect others involved in the violence.

The Jakarta Post reports that local Catholic priests in Sulawesi have been refusing to cooperate with the authorities in the execution - by accompanying and giving spiritual support to the three - until the 16 people named by Tibo go on trial.

Last December, former Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid, a prominent Islamic cleric, called for the executions to be postponed and said an independent commission of inquiry should be set up to probe the killings.

A group of non-governmental organizations in Indonesia appealed late last month for the sentences to be overturned.

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