Civil society groups in Indonesia, including at least one leading Muslim organization, on Thursday challenged a court’s decision this week to sentence a woman for committing blasphemy by complaining about noise coming from a neighborhood mosque.
On Tuesday, the court in Medan, the capital of North Sumatra province, sentenced Meiliana, a 44-year-old Buddhist of Chinese descent, to 18 months in prison after finding her guilty of showing hostility to religion and blasphemy.
“Jailing someone for 18 months for something trivial is a clear example of an increasingly arbitrary and repressive application of the law in this country,” said Usman Hamid, director of Amnesty International Indonesia.
Usman called the verdict a blatant violation of freedom speech.
“The High Court in North Sumatra must reverse this injustice by annulling the sentence and acquitting Meiliana without conditions,” he said.
In 2016, Meiliana approached a neighbor in Tanjung Balai city and complained that the noise from calls to prayers blasted through mosque loudspeakers was “hurting her ears,” and asked that the volume be turned down.
“Your mosque is deafening. I have no peace every day,” she said, according to the indictment.
Meiliana has denied saying those words and her husband apologized.
Later, angry locals threw rocks at Meiliana’s house and mobs burned temples and other buildings owned by local ethnic Chinese. At least eight rioters have been sentenced to jail terms of between one and two months in prison.
‘Blow to the spirt of tolerance’
The Institute for Criminal Justice Reform (ICJR) said the blasphemy law always had been used against minority groups.
“The verdict has dealt a blow to the spirit of tolerance in society as well as to minority groups that should be protected,” ICJR Executive Director Anggara Suwahju said.
“Therefore revisions to the Criminal Code currently being debated in the House of Representatives should do away with this blasphemy provision, ” he said.
In addition to the groups speaking out, a petition demanding Meiliana be released has garnered more than 71,000 signatures.
Robikin Emhas, a deputy chairman of the Nahdlatul Ulama executive board, the country’s largest Muslim organization, said what Meiliana did does not constitute blasphemy in Islam.
Her criticism was constructive in a diverse society, he said.
“Protesting a call to prayers which is too loud is not an expression of hostility. Besides, she did not say rude words,” Robikin told BenarNews.
He said the blasphemy law was introduced to maintain harmony among followers of different religions in Indonesia and should not be used to muzzle differences in opinions.
“What is needed is prudence in appling the law. Amicable discussion should be prioritized. The court is only a last resort,” he said.
Abdulrahman Dahlan, the secretary of the fatwa commission at the Indonesian Council of Ulema, said criticism was not blasphemy. Despite that statement, he refused to blame a fatwa issued by the local ulema council chapter declaring Meiliana’s action blasphemous.
“I didn’t pay close attention to the case. But if it’s only criticism, I think it’s not blasphemy,” he said.
Haedar Nasir, chairman of Muhammadiyah, the country’s second largest Islamic organization, said the case should serve as a lesson on the importance of tolerance, adding it should have been settled amicably out of court.
“Not everything should be settled in court,” he said.
Meanwhile, lawmaker Arsul Sani urged Meilinana to appeal to get justice.
“I think we have to respect the process. There are still legal avenues such as appeals to the High Court and then the Supreme Court,” he said.
He said lawmakers were open to public input on revisions to the criminal code.
“I hope civil society can come forward and convey to us what their objections are,” he said.