Sentences in Indonesian Killings Draw Criticism

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    JAKARTA—Twelve members of a mob that killed three adherents of a minority Muslim sect in Indonesia were sentenced to three to five months in prison on Thursday, in relatively light sentences that critics said demonstrated growing intolerance in the country.

    In the attack in February, a crowd of around 1,500 people descended upon members of the Ahmadiyah sect with machetes and rocks to try to stop them from worshiping. The mob beat three men to death and injured six others before setting cars and houses on fire.

    Graphic video of the attacks, posted on the Internet, triggered a global outcry. One episode, in video admitted as evidence in the trial, showed the alleged ringleader smashing the skull of an already unconcious or dead victim with a rock.

    Human-rights advocates said government prosecutors failed to pursue the case aggressively. Prosecutors asked only for seven-month sentences because they said Ahmadiyah members had helped provoke the attack. The local court found the 12 people guilty on destruction of property and weapons possession and other charges. None were charged with murder or manslaughter.

    The U.S., the European Union and others criticized the sentences, saying they weren't heavy enough.

    "We are disappointed by the disproportionately light sentences handed down on July 28," the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta said in a statement on its website. "The United States encourages Indonesia to defend its tradition of tolerance for all religions."

    President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has sought to promote the country, Southeast Asia's largest economy, as one of the world's most promising and stable emerging markets.

    Human-rights groups and political analysts said the sentences reflected a reluctance by Mr. Yudhoyono to deal with the growing influence of radical Islamic groups because of their political clout.

    "The sentences are far too light for the crimes recorded on video," said Kevin O'Rourke, a Jakarta-based political analyst. "The president's lenience will exacerbate unease among minorities and probably also damage his standing with the moderate mainstream majority."

    Mr. Yudhoyono had nothing to do with the court's decision, said his spokesman, Teuku Faiza. "We cannot intervene in court decisions," he said. "We must respect the supremacy of law. The government has no capacity to comment on judicial decisions."

    The Ahmadiyah sect, which has around 200,000 members in Indonesia, was founded in 1889 by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who followers consider the final prophet. It has long been considered heretical by many Muslims in Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and elsewhere, who say there can be no prophet after Muhammad.

    A 2008 decree in Indonesia blocked the sect from preaching in public and converting others, but didn't ban the group outright. Human-rights groups said the decree helped trigger a surge in violence against the minority, as well as a string of new local-government restrictions on them.

    There has been recent evidence of increasing intolerance of Christians in Indonesia as well, with some Christian groups attacked and denied permission to build new churches. Close to 85% of Indonesia's 240 million citizens are Muslim, making it the largest Muslim-majority country in the world.

    There were 286 attacks against Christians, members of the Ahmadiyah sect and other religious minorities last year, according to Setara Institute, a Jakarta human-rights organization, an increase of more than 50% from three years earlier.

    "Indonesia has no legal protection for minorities," said Hendardi, executive director of Setara Institute. "The message of the sentences is clear: You can get away with murder, torture, and committing violence when you are part of a larger group."

    Critics say local courts have taken a soft stance on Islamic hard-liners but have been heavy-handed when it comes to those who break laws created to protect the country's Islamic values.

    Earlier this year, a pop star, Nazril "Ariel" Irham, was sentenced to 3½ years in jail for making sex tapes after the tapes were leaked onto the Internet, triggering a public debate about morality in Indonesia.

    In February, a 58-year-old Christian, Antonius Richmond Bawengan, was sentenced to five years in prison for handing out leaflets and books that according to the court ruling "spread hatred about Islam." The verdict was followed by rioting by Islamic hard-liners, who burned churches near the court in central Java. Some wanted the death penalty for Mr. Bawengan.

    While the Southeast Asian nation has long been considered moderate and secular, analysts have argued that a small but influential hard-line minority is increasingly seeking to impose its will on the government and police.

    Conservative groups might be emboldened, these analysts say, because President Yudhoyono—who depends on the support of some Islamist parties to stay in power—doesn't want to upset voters who sympathize with the conservative Muslim groups' aims.

    "Religious freedom is seriously under threat in Indonesia," because the country's leaders aren't trying to protect minorities, said Andreas Harsono, Indonesian consultant for Human Rights Watch. "They don't want to be branded as anti-Islam because they might lose votes."

    Sentences in Indonesian Killings Draw Criticism - WSJ.com
     
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