Patrick Goodenough | Pacific Rim Bureau Chief | Wednesday, February 5, 2003
They said the move showed that the government of the world's largest Islamic nation wasn't prepared to act seriously against anti-Christian violence.
Supporters of Jafar Abu Thalib, the leader of the reportedly disbanded Laskar Jihad group, cheered Thursday as an East Jakarta court ruled cleared him of that charge and two others -- inciting hatred against the government and defaming its leaders.
"The defendant has been proven not guilty and must freed of all charges," presiding judge Mansyur Nasution was quoted as telling the hearing, saying Jafar had the right to freedom of speech.
The charges arose out of a speech Jafar gave last April in Ambon, the capital of the Maluku islands - a province wracked by Muslim-Christian violence since 1999 -- in which he condemned a small Christian separatist group.
Soon afterwards, armed militants attacked a nearby village, killing 13 Christians.
Throughout the case, critics questioned the treatment he received. His arrest itself only came a week after the attack, following international condemnation.
During his brief period under arrest, Jafar was visited by Indonesia's vice president, Hamzah Haz, who called the visit a show of solidarity with "a Muslim brother."
During his six-month trial, Jafar was not held in custody, and at one point last August the court sent him away for two weeks, saying he did not look well.
Jafar faced a maximum penalty of seven years in jail, although prosecutors had only sought a 12-month term.
Campaigners have contrasted that "kid glove" treatment with that experienced by Christian suspects.
Earlier this week, two leaders of the fringe separatist group targeted in Jafar's speech were sentenced to three years in jail each for campaigning for an independent state in the Malukus.
Meanwhile, a Christian pastor in another Indonesian province that has been marred by religious violence, Central Sulawesi, has being detained for four months on charges his supporters say are trumped up.
The Rev. Rinaldy Damanik, who has been accused of carrying weapons and inciting violent attacks, is described by Christian Solidarity Worldwide as "a key Christian leader working for an end to the violence."
As head of a crisis center in the area, "he was responsible for informing the international community of the attacks and human rights violations in the area," said CSW.
'Prepare our guns'
Christian groups inside Indonesia and abroad accused Jafar's group, Laskar Jihad, of shipping in fighters responsible for much of the violence in Maluku and Central Sulawesi, where thousands of Christians and Muslims have died since 1999.
Peace agreements were signed in the two provinces about a year ago, but in the Maluku case it was briefly shattered by the violence that followed Jafar's speech.
According to a recording of the address, Jafar was accused of telling his followers to ignore the peace accord, and in the context of the Christian separatist campaign, to "prepare our bombs, and ready our guns."
He was also quoted as declaring "there will be no reconciliation with non-Muslims ... we will fight them until our last drop of blood." The alleged threats against government leaders arose from the same speech.
Less than two days after the speech, a nearby Christian village called Soya was attacked by masked men who shot, hacked and burned to death 13 villagers, including a young baby. A church and scores of homes were torched.
Jafar denied any wrongdoing, and was arrested a week later. Last October, Laskar Jihad announced it was disbanding, giving no reason.
Fr. Cornelius Bohm of the Ambon Crisis Center, a Catholic institution in the Maluku capital, said he saw two military roadblocks there early Friday for the first time in months.
It may be the authorities were expecting an angry response from local Christians to news of the acquittal, the Dutch-born priest said by telephone.
But Bohm said he did not expect an adverse reaction.
"Christians here see this as just another injustice against them and they swallow it," he said.
In his view, the trial outcome was an indication of the influence in Indonesia of fundamentalist Muslims.
"The government is afraid of them and gives them a little pleasure every now and then to keep them calm," he said.
Bohm confirmed that no one had been arrested in connection with the Soya attack. He said local Christians were so pleased to be rid of the departing Laskar Jihad, they generally had not complained about the authorities' failure to punish the militants for their alleged crimes.
Holly Hursh of the religious rights group International Christian Concern said it was very troubled to hear of Jafar's acquittal.
"It seems very lopsided that Rev. Damanik can be held with absolutely no proof of his guilt in inciting violence, when with Thalib we have even recorded radio programs where he was calling for Muslims to take up arms - and yet he was acquitted," she said.
"This makes absolutely no sense to us in our idea of what is just. It concerns us that the Christian community is getting blamed while the Muslims are getting off with no punishment whatsoever."
Hursh said the acquittal sent a signal that Jakarta was "not really serious about punishing the true culprits of these crimes against the Christian community."
She said Maluku had been relatively quiet in recent months, but the group was keeping a close watch on what happened next.
Of Laskar Jihad, Hursh said its members "may not regroup under that name, but it's very likely they will join with other Islamic militant organizations with similar purposes, of attacking Christians and Westerners.
"Even though Laskar Jihad as a group disbands that does not mean that the threat that group posed is gone."
Ian Freestone of International Friends of Compassion, an Indonesia-focused Christian group, said Friday Jafar's acquittal was a blow to all working for peace and reconciliation in the country.
"Not only Christians, but many of other faiths in Indonesia would be dismayed to know that the Laskar Jihad leader is to be released."
Pointing to the arrests of more than 20 suspects in last October's Bali bombing, Freestone noted that in a case that received international attention the alleged perpetrators had been quickly caught.
"But when minority groups within Indonesia are terrorized, justice seems far away."
More than 80 percent of Indonesia's population is Muslim, although in the Malukus Muslim and Christian communities are roughly equal in size.
Estimates of deaths over three years of bloodshed there range from 5,000 to twice that number, while more than half a million people - almost one-third of the population - fled their homes.
The tiny Christian separatist movement, the Front for the Sovereignty of Maluku (FKM), campaigns for the southern Maluku islands to break away from Indonesia and form a republic.
Half a century ago, a republic was proclaimed there amid the confusion of talks leading to Indonesian independence from Dutch colonial rule. Forces of the newly-independent Indonesia quickly overran it in a move the FKM claims was an illegal annexation.
Christian campaigners say the campaign of the FKM, which most local churches repudiate, has been used as a pretext for violence against the wider Maluku Christian community.
Christians Killed In Renewed Attacks In Indonesia (Apr. 29, 2002)
Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.