Preacher’s Death Casts Spotlight on Treatment of Detainees, Free Speech in Indonesia

Ronna Nirmala
Preacher’s Death Casts Spotlight on Treatment of Detainees, Free Speech in Indonesia Controversial Islamic preacher Soni Eranata, also known as Maaher At-Thuwailibi, is seen in his Twitter profile picture.
[Ust Maaher At-Thuwailibi Official @ustadzmaaher_]

The death in police custody of a 28-year-old Islamic preacher, who was jailed for several weeks for an “insulting” tweet about an advisor to the president, has raised questions about the treatment of detainees and the state of free speech in Indonesia.

Soni Eranata, also known as Maaher At-Thuwailibi, died in his detention cell on Monday night after refusing to be hospitalized for an illness, police said.

Last week, a man accused of stealing a mobile phone died in detention in Balikpapan, a city on Borneo Island, after allegedly being tortured by police. Police have named six officers suspects in the case. 

At least nine detainees in Indonesia have died in the past three months because of mistreatment, illness, suicide and fighting among inmates, said KontraS, a human rights group.

“This is the result of overzealous action by police and a lack of transparency and accountability,” KontraS coordinator Fatia Maulidiyanto told BenarNews. 

“We urge the national police chief to order police departments across the country to conduct thorough reviews to prevent mistreatment and excessive action.”

Soni was arrested on Dec. 3 after a citizen complained to police about one of the preacher’s postings on Twitter.

In that tweet, the citizen perceived that Soni was mocking the head gear worn by Luthfi bin Yahya, an Islamic cleric and member of the presidential advisory council.

“Wearing the hijab like the Banser cleric makes you more beautiful,” Soni tweeted with a photo of Luthfi.

Banser is the paramilitary wing of the Nahdlatul Ulama – Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization – to which Luthfi belongs. 

Soni eventually apologized for the post, but police pursued the case and charged him with violating the Electronic Information and Transactions (ITE) Law.

According to national police spokesman Inspector Gen. Argo Yuwono, Soni became ill after he was arrested in December, and had been treated for a week at a police hospital in Jakarta before being discharged and returned to the police detention center.

“It is not true that he was ill-treated. He died from an illness,” Argo told reporters on Tuesday.

“There’s a statement from the doctor who treated him that the suspect was sick. There are lab results too.”   

After being discharged, Soni on Feb. 4 again said he was sick and police offered to send him back to the hospital, but he refused, Argo said.

Argo declined to provide details on Soni’s illness, saying it was a sensitive matter. No autopsy was conducted and the body has since been buried, police said.

Soni’s lawyer, Djuju Purwantara, said the family had asked that the preacher be taken to an Islamic hospital in Bogor, south of Jakarta, but the request was rejected on the grounds that the police hospital was well equipped to treat him.

“The family wanted Ustaz [teacher] Maaher to be treated at Ummi Hospital, because his medical records were there,” Djuju told BenarNews.

Djuju said his client often complained about stomach aches but the police hospital did not inform him about Soni’s illness.

The National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) said it was seeking more information about Soni’s death. 

“We want to know what really happened,” Komnas HAM chairman Ahmad Taufan Damanik told reporters on Wednesday.

“His family said that there was no violence and he was sick. We want to know why he was sick and why he was not treated immediately,” he said.

Taufan said he had urged the coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, Mohammad Mahfud MD, to improve monitoring in detention centers.

“We need to improve the conditions in detention centers. There should be zero tolerance for violence and torture,” he said.

‘Ultimum remedium ignored’

Soni was no stranger to controversy and provocative social media posts.

In 2017, he accused President Joko Widodo’s government of being hostile to Islam after it disbanded Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), the local branch of an international group seeking to establish an Islamic caliphate.

Last year, Soni called actress and model Nikita Mirzani a “whore” and threatened to send hundreds of people to her house after she called hardline cleric Muhammad Rizieq Shihab a “snake oil salesman.”

Meanwhile, Rizieq, who founded a now banned vigilante group called Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), has been in detention since December and is awaiting trial for allegedly flouting coronavirus restrictions.

Days before he turned himself in, police said they shot dead six FPI members who were traveling in a convoy with Rizieq, in self-defense. On Dec. 30, the government banned FPI, accusing it of violating the law and disrupting peace and security.

The arrests of Soni and Rizieq and the killing by police of six FPI supporters in December have prompted accusations that the government is becoming increasingly hostile towards Muslims who do not toe the government line.

In 2017, the government outlawed Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), for promoting a state based on Sharia law instead of the nation’s Pancasila ideology.

Asfinawati, the head of the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation, said freedom of speech and assembly had been under attack in recent years, with critics on social media increasingly subjected to prosecution under the electronic information law.

“On the other hand, pro-government influencers seem to be above the law,” Asfinawati told BenarNews.

She urged Jokowi to rein in the police.

“The police force is under the president. If the police deviate from their duties and charge people for exercising free speech, the president should warn them,” Asfinawati said.

Damar Juniarto, executive director of the Association for Freedom of Expression in Southeast Asia (SAFEnet), said the electronic information law had been abused to stifle free speech.

“A study by civil society groups shows that the conviction rate of the ITE Law is 96.8 percent, with an imprisonment rate of 88 percent. This means that people who are charged under the ITE Law are likely to be jailed,” Damar told BenarNews.

Articles of the ITE Law also often ignore the principle of ultimum remedium punishment, he said. “Ultimum remedium” means prosecution as a last resort.

“This is the contradiction. People file police reports even before a warning, mediation or any attempt to seek clarification,” Damar said.


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