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Article Indonesia: Atheist to Be Charged with Blasphemy

(Feb. 9, 2012) Alexander Aan, an Indonesian civil servant living in Pulau Punjung, in West Sumatra Province, posted the statement “God doesn't exist” on a Facebook page in January 2012. That page is no longer available online. The public reaction was severe; Aan's office was mobbed on January 18, and he was physically attacked. The police arrested him and are planning charges of blasphemy against him, while extremists have called for him to be beheaded. (Presi Mandari, Calls to Behead Indonesian Atheist Alexander Aan, THE JAKARTA GLOBE (Feb. 2, 2012); Row over Indonesia Atheist Facebook Post, BBC NEWS (Jan. 20, 2012).)

Under Indonesia's Constitution, citizens are free to practice religion. The Preamble describes Indonesia as having, among other attributes, “a sovereign state based on a belief in the One and Only God.” (Constitution of the Republic of Indonesia (Aug. 18, 1945, as amended through 2002), INTERNATIONAL CONSTITUTIONAL LAW.) Article 28e of the Constitution states, “[e]very person is free to choose and to practice the religion of his/her choice” and “[e]very person has the right to the freedom to believe his/her faith (kepercayaan), and to express his/her views and thoughts, in accordance with his/her conscience.” (Id.) Article 29 reinforces the statement in the Preamble that the state is “based upon the belief in the One and Only God” and that the “State guarantees all persons the freedom of worship, each according to his/her own religion or belie.f” (Id.) There is no statement that protects those who do not believe in a god or profess any religion. Six religions are officially recognized, including several that are not monotheistic: Buddhism, Catholicism, Confucianism, Hinduism, and Protestantism. (U.S. Department of State, Indonesia, 2010 INTERNATIONAL RELIGIOUS FREEDOM REPORT (Sept. 13, 2011).)

Under Indonesia's Penal Code, blasphemy is punished with a maximum sentence of five years of imprisonment. This judgment is imposed on anyone who publicly expresses feelings or commits acts that primarily are at odds with, abuse, or insult any religion adhered to in Indonesia or that have the purpose of preventing someone from adhering to any religion based on belief in “the almighty God.” (Penal Code of Indonesia, art. 156a (amended by Undang-undang R. I. No. 27 Tahun 1999 (May 19, 1999)), Human Rights in Asia website [translation from the Directorate General of Law and Legislation, Indonesian Ministry of Justice].)

In addition to the potential punishment for expressing anti-religious views, civil servants in Indonesia must swear their support for the national philosophy of Pancasila, which includes belief in one god. (U.S. Department of State, supra.) Chairul Aziz, the police chief in Aan's locality, stated that Aan could be charged with a false declaration of Islamic faith at the time he applied for his civil service position. Aziz added, “[h]e expressed his intention to convert to Islam but he has not performed an Islamic declaration of faith. Even if he does so, he still can't escape from justice due to his blasphemous act.” (Mandari, supra.)

While members of the Indonesian non-governmental organization Atheist Minang have expressed support for Aan, Muhammad al-Kaththath, Secretary-General of the Islamic Society Forum, said that Aan “deserves the death penalty, even if he decides to repent. What he has done cannot be tolerated. … It is important to prevent this group from spreading atheism in this country.” (Id.)

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