Civil Society Groups Call for Law Revision After Buddhist Woman's Blasphemy Conviction

Tri Ratna Temple in Tanjung Balai, North Sumatra, after it was ransacked by an angry mob in July 2016. (Antara Photo/Anton)

By : Sheany | on 2:45 PM August 25, 2018
Category : News, Featured, Human Rights, Religion

Jakarta. Indonesian civil society organizations have denounced the imprisonment of a Buddhist woman who was found guilty of blasphemy after complaining that the Islamic call to prayer from a mosque near her home in Tanjung Balai, North Sumatra, was too loud.

In separate statements, the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan) and the Setara Institute, a human rights group, called on the government and the House of Representatives to revise the country's archaic blasphemy law, as part of efforts to curtail discrimination against marginalized communities.

"Komnas Perempuan is urging for Meiliana to be cleared of all charges, as this was not a criminal offense," the commission said in a statement on Friday (24/08).

The Medan District Court sentenced Meiliana, an ethnic Chinese, to 18 months in prison earlier this week after ruling that she insulted Islam by telling a neighbor that the call to prayer was too loud and asking for the volume to be turned down.

Her legal team has filed an appeal against the verdict.

Her remarks triggered a mass riot in the area in 2016, when angry mobs burned down and damaged several Buddhist monasteries and temples.

Other organizations, including Human Rights Watch and the Institute for Criminal Justice Reform, previously said Indonesia's blasphemy law has been used to prosecute and imprison members of the country's religious minorities.

Amnesty International Indonesia said the court's decision was a flagrant violation of the freedom of expression.

"Sentencing someone to 18 months in prison for something so trivial is a stark illustration of the increasingly arbitrary and repressive application of the blasphemy law in the country," said Usman Hamid, executive director of Amnesty International Indonesia.

Komnas Perempuan further said the case against Meiliana cannot be seen in isolation, noting that it has been receiving reports of potential religious tensions in Tanjung Balai since 2010.

The commission said mistrust, prejudice and a lack of peaceful dialogue between the diverse ethnic and religious communities in the city were exacerbated by social and economic disparities, as members of the ethnic Chinese community are generally perceived as being wealthier than those from other groups.

Meiliana's case therefore served as a trigger for the expression of mass discontent.

"Through our findings on tensions and conflict in Tanjung Balai, we can conclude that Meiliana's case cannot stand on its own," Komnas Perempuan said.

Komnas Perempuan and the Setara Institute both also noted that Meiliana's case was spurred on by mass public pressure.

"The trial against Meiliana is an example of mob justice, which erodes the integrity of our legal institutions," said Hendardi, chairman of the Setara Institute.

The Setara Institute criticized the Indonesian justice system and said Meiliana's case illustrates that the country's legal institutions are weak when pressured by intolerant groups.

"Intolerance and discrimination are glued to Indonesia's legal institutions. Intolerance is not only increasing among members of the public, but also among law enforcement officers and in government," Hendardi said.

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