Tuesday, August 2, 2011 As of 12:00 AM
A dozen people were sentenced Thursday to a maximum of six months in jail for their roles in the February riot in Cikeusik, a village on western Java. More than 1,000 locals had targeted around 20 members of the Ahmadiyya sect; in addition to the deaths, at least five Ahmadis were seriously wounded. The tumult, which was caught on tape, started as the Ahmadis were preparing to ask the police for stronger protection in the face of Islamist efforts to chase the group out of the village. Of the three victims—Warsono Kastolib, Roni Pasaroni and Tubagus Chandra—one was bashed to death with a rock.
Indonesia’s treatment of its Ahmadi minority has become a test of the country’s commitment to democratic pluralism, and the trial resulting from the February riot is the latest sign Jakarta is failing. The sect, which describes itself as an offshoot of Islam, is viewed as heretical by many Muslims. Islamists have tried various means, legal and illegal, to intimidate the Ahmadis, including attacks on property owned by Ahmadis around the country.
February’s riot was one of the most serious instances to date, yet no one has been charged with murder or manslaughter as a result. The 12 defendants in last week’s case received extremely light sentencing recommendations from prosecutors, and the sentences actually imposed by the judges were lighter still.
At worst, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has exacerbated the problem. He supported a 2008 decree barring the Ahmadiyya from proselytizing. The law certainly doesn’t condone rioting. But it does send the message that some forms of religion deserve fewer freedoms than others.
Prosecutors and judges in this case seem to have heard that message loud and clear. Defenders of the rioters claim the Ahmadis “provoked” the riot; this theory was credited by prosecutors in requesting light sentences for the defendants’ roles. Judges also went along with prosecutors’ argument for leniency on the grounds that since an Ahmadi had videotaped the riot and released the tape, the Ahmadis themselves had tarnished Indonesia’s reputation. One Ahmadi, Deden Sujana, received a six-year sentence for “incitement” in an earlier trial.
Mr. Yudhoyono seems to have thought he was making a calculated gamble that he could appease Islamists on the Ahmadiyya issue with little cost. Hence his 2008 decree and his silence as this case proceeded. But the riot in Cikeusik shows how short-sighted that is. Given sufficient quarter, Islamists will threaten basic law and order and undermine Indonesia’s democracy.
This verdict comes at a time when other Islamist threats against minority religions are on the rise, including at least one riot directed at Christians and increasingly frequent attacks on Christian-owned property. The vast majority of Indonesians practice a moderate form of Islam that understands the chasm between thinking a group is heretical and throwing rocks at the group’s members. Mr. Yudhoyono does a disservice to the millions of those moderates who voted for him when he doesn’t speak out for equal protection under the law.