Letter to President Barack Obama Regarding his Visit to Indonesia and Human Rights Issues
November 15, 2011
President of the United States of America
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500
Via facsimile: +1-202-456-2461
Re: Visit to Indonesia and Human Rights Issues
Dear President Obama,
Your administration has placed great emphasis on its deepening relationship with Indonesia. We believe your trip to Bali for the East Asian Summit on November 19, 2011, is an important opportunity for you to raise human rights issues with the Indonesian government, both publicly and privately, including matters concerning freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and accountability of the military for human rights abuses.
Freedom of Religion
Last November, when visiting Jakarta, you visited the Istiqlal Grand Mosque and later made a speech at Universitas Indonesia in which you praised Indonesia’s “religious tolerance,” noting that the Istiqlal Mosque was built by a Christian architect.
In the last year, however, increasingly violent attacks on religious minorities by Islamist militants, combined with bans issued by provincial authorities, have severely undermined Indonesia’s record on this front.
Incidents of religious violence have become more deadly and more frequent in 2011, as Islamist militants have repeatedly mobilized mobs to attack religious minorities in their homes, places of worship, and community centers. According to the Setara Institute, which monitors religious freedom, religious attacks have increased from 135 incidents in 2007, 216 incidents in 2010 to 184 cases in the first nine months in 2011. Most attacks were committed with complete impunity. Police and prosecutors have failed to adequately investigate and prosecute cases, sending a chilling message that members of minority religious groups are not provided the same protections as other Indonesian citizens. Even the most deadly cases have resulted only in short prison terms for a handful of offenders.
Some Indonesian ministers, including the minister of religious affairs, Suryadharma Ali, have made multiple public statements that appear to legitimize religious discrimination and violence. President Yudhoyono has not demanded that officials retract or clarify such remarks.
Recently, the Ministry of Religions submitted a draft law on “religious harmony.” There are concerns, however, that rather than promoting tolerance, the law will simply compile existing discriminatory decrees into a single law and strengthen discrimination against religious minorities.
The government has failed to overturn several decrees that discriminate against minority religions and foster intolerance. A 2008 national government decree prohibits the Ahmadiyah, a group who consider themselves Muslim but who some Muslims consider to be heretics, from practicing their faith. At least 17 provinces and regencies in Indonesia have issued local decrees banning the Ahmadiyah faith in Indonesia. As recently as October 13, 2011, the mayor of Bekasi, near Jakarta, issued a decree banning all “Ahmadiyah activities” in the city, effectively closing down its six Ahmadiyah mosques.
Ahmadiyah have suffered some of the worst of the recent violence. In one of the worst religiously-motivated attacks in 2011, more than 1,500 Islamist militants attacked a house in Cikeusik, in western Java, in February, killing three and seriously wounding five Ahmadiyah men. The incident was recorded on video. Public outrage prompted the authorities to promise to investigate the attack. But in July the Serang district court sentenced 12 men to between just three and six months’ imprisonment for the crimes of disturbing public order, incitement, and assault. Police did not conduct thorough investigations, and prosecutors did not call key eyewitnesses to the attack. The prosecutors sought reduced sentences, contending that the Ahmadiyah provoked the attack. In August, the Serang district court convicted one of the Ahmadiyah members seriously injured in the attack, Deden Sudjana, for assault and disobeying police orders, sentencing him to six months’ imprisonment.
Other religious minorities have increasingly expressed fears about the rise in attacks since President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono took office in 2004. In February of this year, militants attacked three churches in Temanggung, Central Java. The Semarang district court later convicted eight of the perpetrators, sentencing them to short sentences of between five months and one year in prison. In April, an Islamist suicide bomber attacked a police mosque in Cirebon, West Java, killing himself and injuring at least 28 people; the bomber had previously been involved in violent protests over a blasphemy trial and an anti-Ahmadiyah attack in Cirebon in 2010. In September, another Islamist suicide bomber attacked a Christian church in Solo, Central Java, killing himself and wounding 14 churchgoers.
Minority congregations have also reported that local government officials arbitrarily refuse to issue permits required under a 2006 decree on building houses of worship. Those who attempt to worship without a permit often face harassment and violence from local populations or police.
Given your past statements on religious tolerance, we believe you are uniquely placed to register these issues with President Yudhoyono and call on him to take urgent steps to address growing religious tensions. In particular, you should call on President Yudhoyono to use the influence and stature of his presidency to speak out against religious violence. He should also revoke the 2008 decree on the Ahmadiyah, order provincial authorities to repeal similar local decrees, review or revoke the 2006 decree on building houses of worship, and consider amending or repealing the 1965 blasphemy law, which designates six official religions in Indonesia. You should also urge him to ensure that Indonesian prosecutors and police are tasked to fully and fairly investigate and prosecute individuals and groups implicated in attacks, threats, and harassment of religious minorities, anywhere in the country.
Impunity for Abuses by the Military
Impunity for members of Indonesia’s security forces remains a serious problem, undermining the development of the rule of law in Indonesia. The military insists on policing itself, but military tribunals rarely charge soldiers even for serious abuses. When they do file charges, the proceedings lack transparency and the charges frequently fail to reflect the seriousness of the abuses committed. We have long recommended that civilian courts be given jurisdiction over soldiers who commit serious human rights abuses, but the military and the Indonesian government have refused. This greatly exacerbates the difficulty in bringing soldiers to justice.
On July 22, 2010, then-US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates formally announced the resumption of US military relations with Indonesia’s special forces, Kopassus, the last significant barrier to full-fledged US-Indonesian military ties. Secretary Gates articulated the standards agreed to by the US and Indonesian governments and militaries:
However, 18 months later, the Indonesia military has failed to live up to the pledges made by the Defense Ministry. Past problems persist: the Indonesian military still shows no inclination to adequately and transparently investigate soldiers and especially officers responsible for abuses, involve civilian authorities in their investigations, or ensure the safety of witnesses.
While a handful of military tribunals have been held in Papua, the charges have been inadequate and soldiers that committed abuses continue to serve in the Indonesian military.
For instance, in January, a military tribunal in Jayapura, Papua, convicted three soldiers from Battalion 753 and sentenced them to between eight to twelve months’ imprisonment for the extremely brutal torture of two Papuan farmers. Despite video showing the involvement of six soldiers, the tribunal tried only three of the six soldiers, and on lesser military discipline charges instead of torture. The soldiers have not been discharged.
In August, the Jayapura military tribunal convicted three soldiers from the same battalion after soldiers shot and killed Reverend Kinderman Gire on the suspicion he was a Papuan separatist. At the trial, the defendants claimed Gire led them to believe he was a member of the rebel Free Papua Movement (Organisasi Papua Merdeka, OPM) and tried to grab a rifle from one of them, who then shot him in the chest. They dumped the body in a river, after trying to cut off his head. Again, the tribunal convicted them of a lesser offense of “disobeying orders” and sentenced them respectively to just six, seven, and fifteen months in prison.
In August, internal military documents, mainly from Kopassus, were made public, exposing how the Indonesian military monitors peaceful activists, politicians, and religious clergy in Papua. The documents show the deep military paranoia in Papua that conflates peaceful political expression with criminal activity. Several of those named in the documents as targets have faced arbitrary arrest, imprisonment, harassment, or violence.
Recently, on October 17, the Indonesian police, backed by a detachment of military forces in armored personnel carriers, attacked a peaceful demonstration of the Papuan People’s Congress in Jayapura, killing at least three of the protesters and arresting approximately 300, including several of the event’s leaders (some of whom have traveled to the United States in the past and attended events with State Department officials and members of Congress). According to witnesses, police and army forces fired military assault weapons over the crowd and later pistol-whipped or beat the participants with rattan canes and batons, resulting in 96 injuries according to Indonesia’s Human Rights Commission. Hundreds of the protesters fled into a nearby forest, where at least three were killed under unclear circumstances –two died of gunshot wounds. We urge you to ask the Indonesian government what efforts are being made to investigate the deaths and injuries, and alleged excessive use of force by security forces at the demonstration.
We ask that you use the US’s deepening ties with the Indonesian government to press the military on its failure to hold its personnel to account for serious abuses. If the current situation prevails, the United States will increasingly be called to task for its uncritical support for the Indonesian military.
It would be very helpful if publicly and in your meeting with President Yudhoyono you were to raise concerns about recent military tribunals in Papua and the failure to bring those implicated in serious abuses to justice. The US should ask the Indonesian government for full disclosure of all military tribunal cases involving alleged abuses against civilians. Until the Indonesian government takes steps to hold perpetrators accountable, in line with the Leahy law, which prevents the US from cooperating with abusive military units, the US government should not participate in joint endeavors with military personnel or units implicated in abuses against civilians.
A new law on intelligence-gathering approved by Indonesian parliament on October 12 contains vague and overbroad language that the government could use to repress dissent and peaceful acts of free expression. The law also lacks a strong and transparent accountability mechanism. We urge you to raise concerns about the law with President Yudhoyono, and urge that it be revised to meet rule-of-law requirements and international due process standards. The president should immediately order an interim measure to limit any opportunity for the law’s misuse by setting up an independent oversight mechanism for the State Intelligence Agency (Badan Intelejen Negara, BIN).
Threats to Free Expression
In the years immediately after President Suharto was forced from power, Indonesia made huge strides in opening space for free expression and the media. But recent years have seen some troubling developments. Indonesian officials continue to enforce a number of laws that criminalize the peaceful expression of political, religious, and other views. These laws include offenses in Indonesia’s criminal code such as treason (makar) and “inciting hatred” (haatzai artikelen), which have been used repeatedly against peaceful political activists, particularly those from the Moluccas and Papua.
More than a hundred such activists are currently behind bars in Indonesia for peaceful acts of free expression. For instance, Filep Karma, a civil servant, made a speech in December 2004 in Jayapura that was critical of the government’s policies in Papua. He is currently serving a 15-year sentence in Abepura on charges of treason. Ruben Saiya, a farmer from the Moluccas, joined a protest dance in front of President Yudhoyono in an Ambon stadium in June 2007. He was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment for treason. And as noted above, several Papua leaders were recently arrested after holding an event in Jayapura.
Human Rights Watch takes no position on claims to self-determination in the Moluccas Islands and Papua. Consistent with international law, however, Human Rights Watch supports the right of all individuals, including independence supporters, to express their political views peacefully without fear of arrest or other forms of reprisal. Indonesian laws, however, consider these non-violent acts as “treason” with the maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
We urge that you raise your concerns on the right to free expression in Indonesia with President Yudhoyono, and particularly urge that you ask Indonesian authorities to unconditionally release Filep Karma, Ruben Saiya, and all prisoners held for the peaceful expression of their views. The Indonesian government should also amend or repeal laws that criminalize peaceful political expression and repeal laws that criminalize defamation and “insulting” public officials, which are subject to misuse by authorities and individuals seeking to silence criticism.
Thank you for your consideration. We look forward to working with the White House, the State Department, the Defense Department, and the US Embassy in Jakarta to address these concerns.