30 Mar 2010

Indonesia's Ministry of Religious Affairs considers criminal charges against conference organisers

While local conference organisers may face criminal charges, human rights advocates in Indonesia are simultaneously urging the police to arrest members of several Islamic groups who raided the hotel where participants were staying.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs (Kementerian Agama) told the Jawa Pos newspaper on Sunday it is coordinating with law enforcement agencies to charge the Indonesian organisers of the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA) Asia conference which was scheduled to be held in Surabaya last weekend.

News of the conference and protest dominated local newspaper headlines for almost a week. Above: Gaya Nusantara, which operates a community centre and office with a staff strength of 15, had its premises locked and sealed by protesters last Friday afternoon. (Images from local media via aibai.com)

The Minister of Religious Affairs, Suryadharma Ali, was quoted as saying that activities such as the conference are against religious and moral order, and an offense to the religious community in Indonesia. He added that homosexual behaviour contradicts the teachings of various religions, including Islam. He added that he is certain other religions in Indonesia do not condone homosexual behaviour.

It is believed that the organisers of the conference – none have been specifically named by the authorities although three members of the ILGA Asia board are Indonesian: Poedjiati Tan of Gaya Nusantara, King Oey of Arus Pelangi and Kamilia of Institut Pelangi Perempuan, Indonesia – may be charged under the country’s Blasphemy Law.

The Blasphemy Law, which is currently under review at the Constitutional Court, prohibits alternative interpretations of the six officially recognised religions: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism; others are officially banned.

If convicted, one faces a jail term of up to five years. 

According to the Jakarta Globe, in 2008, the government used the law to formally ban Ahmadiyah, a minority Islamic sect, because members held that its founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, was the last prophet of Islam, a claim that contradicts mainstream Muslim beliefs.

The Constitutional Court is currently reviewing the law following a demand for a review filed by human rights groups who argue that the law may be abused and misused to intimidate minority religions and allowed minority religious groups to be persecuted.

The conference was organised by Surabaya-based Gaya Nusantara, the country’s longest running gay advocacy group which was founded in 1987 and Jakarta-based Arus Pelangi which was formed in January 2006.

Gaya Nusantara, which operates a community centre and office with a staff strength of 15, had its premises locked and sealed by protesters last Friday afternoon. Staff members Fridae spoke to said they are not aware if there’s a ‘correct’ procedure to have the office unsealed or if they can have the lock cut should they wish to re-enter their office. As of Tuesday morning, the office is still sealed, a member of the staff told Fridae.

Last Friday, members of several hardline Islamic groups forced their way into a Surabaya hotel thought to be hosting the conference (in fact, organisers had already publicly announced the cancellation of the conference) and ordered participants who were staying in the hotel to leave the country by Sunday.

Conference organisers told participants last Friday – when the hotel was under siege by between 50 to 150 protesters according to press reports – that the police were unable or unwilling to guarantee the safety of the participants whether they choose to leave the hotel the same evening or if they were to stay the night before leaving the next morning. This was after protesters had threatened that a larger number of protesters will descend on the hotel the next morning. An estimated 60 to 80 participants from more than a dozen countries were in Surabaya for the conference.

Leading gay rights activist and founder of Gaya Nusantara Dede Oetomo was quoted as saying in The Jakarta Post on Monday that he was not able to give a statement sooner as the participants’ and organizers’ safety was under threat: “The police should have been able to ensure the citizens’ rights to convene.”

“It turned out that they could not even ensure the safety and security of the participants and organisers.”

Human rights advocates have accused the police and several religious groups of breaking the law by shutting down the conference and banning conference organisers and participants from speaking to the media.

Women’s activist Vivi Widyawati, who is the spokeswoman of the Mahardhika women’s organisation, said the attackers broke the law and should be punished.

“The move violates democratic principles and humiliates Indonesia in the international forum,” she told The Jakarta Post. She also said the incident was evidence of the failure of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, lawmakers and the political elite to protect minorities in the country.

“We demand the police arrest and imprison the attackers. I doubt, however, that the police have the balls to do so,” Vivi said.

The head of Surabaya’s Alliance of Independent Journalists, Donny Maulana, criticised the Islamic groups for “banning” the congress’ participants from speaking out, saying that such a “ban” would lead to unbalanced reporting.

“A move to ban a news source from speaking to the media is illegal,” he said Sunday, adding that the 1999 Press Law stipulates that preventing journalists from seeking and publishing information was a crime. Those found guilty of doing so face up to two years imprisonment and up to Rp 500 million (US$55,000) in fines, according to the Post.

Indonesia » Jawa Timur