Rights Groups Criticize Indonesia’s Prison Term for Shi’ite Cleric

Posted July 12th, 2012 at 7:50 pm (UTC-5)
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Rights groups are criticizing an Indonesian court for sentencing a Shi'ite cleric to two years in prison for blasphemy. They call the verdict a setback for religious freedom in the predominantly Sunni Muslim nation.

In Thursday's ruling, the court in Madura island's Sampang district convicted Tajul Muluk of insulting Islam in his religious teachings. Citing testimony from witnesses, the court said the Shi'ite cleric deviated from mainstream Sunni Islam by teaching followers that they should pray only three times a day rather than five.

Indonesian legal aid advocate Agustiawan told VOA the judges also faulted Muluk for preaching that the modern-day Quran is not authentic.

“Based on the existing facts, the judge believed that Tajul Muluk — a Muslim cleric — taught his followers that the Quran used by Muslims in Indonesia is not the original Quran. Tajul Muluk taught that the original is still in the hands of Imam Mahdi. Teaching that the Quran is not original is considered by the judges as an attempt to tarnish Islam.”

Muluk was arrested in April. He criticized Thursday's ruling as an affront to his dignity, and he vowed to appeal.

The U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch called on the Indonesian government to drop all charges against the cleric and release him. It also urged Jakarta to “amend or repeal” the blasphemy law, calling it part of a “growing trend of violence and legal action against religious minorities in the country.” Indonesia is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which includes a commitment to freedom of religion.

Human Rights Watch said Sunni militants attacked Muluk's village last December, burning houses and a Shi'ite Islamic school, causing about 500 Shi'ite residents to flee.

Zuhairi Misrawi is the director of Indonesia's Moderate Modern Society research institute. He told VOA that Muluk's prison term is an example of wider persecution of Indonesian Shi'ites by Sunni Islamists.

“This is a setback in the context of freedom of religion in Indonesia. The Shia group is the victim of a violent act. The perpetrators of violence are those who should be imprisoned. The two-year sentence was not just, because the legal considerations were influenced by people who claim to represent the majority Muslim viewpoint, namely the Majelis Ulama Indonesia (Islamic affairs council) of Sampang and the Nahdatul Ulama community.” (Nahdatul Ulama is one of Indonesia's largest Sunni Islamist organizations.)

In separate remarks to VOA, the head of the Indonesian government's Islamic affairs council, Ma'rug Amin, said the issue of Shia Islam is a matter of debate between national and regional Sunni clerics.

“The central government MUI (Majelis Ulama Indonesia) has not declared the heresy of Shia Islam. But Sampang MUI and East Java have issued an edict that Shia Islam is a heresy. We at the Central MUI are still in the process of discussion, because we need to see it from various aspects. The discussion has not been completed.”

(VOA's Indonesian service contributed to this report)