Amnesty International has called for the immediate and unconditional release of an Indonesian man detained for professing atheism, calling his imprisonment a serious setback for freedom of expression in Indonesia.
“Amnesty International believes the charges and sentence are in contravention of Indonesia’s obligation under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights [ICCPR], particularly Article 18, which protects an individual’s right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and Article 19, which guarantees the right to freedom of opinion and expression,” the rights group said in a statement on Friday.
A court in the Muaro district of West Sumatra on Thursday sentenced 30-year-old Alexander Aan, a civil servant from Pulau Punjung subdistrict, to 30 months in jail and a fine of Rp 100 million ($10,600) for violating the Electronic Information and Transaction Law. He was charged with “disseminating information aimed at inciting religious hatred or hostility” under that law and also of religious blasphemy under the Criminal Code.
Alexander was reportedly an active member of the Minang atheist Facebook group. He allegedly posted statements and pictures that some construed as insulting to Islam and the Prophet Muhammad.
On Jan. 18, an angry crowd who had heard about his alleged Facebook posts gathered at his workplace and threatened to beat him. Police officers intervened and took him to the Pulau Punjung Police station for his safety.
Amnesty said the United Nations Human Rights Committee — the UN body charged with interpretation of the ICCPR — noted in its General Comment No. 22, freedom of religion includes the freedom to have and adopt atheistic views. The right to hold and express such views is guaranteed under Article 19 of the ICCPR.
Amnesty International continues to express concern over Article 156a of the Indonesian Criminal Code, created by Presidential Decision Number 1/PNPS/1965, on the prevention of religious abuse and/or defamation, which imposes a prison sentence “for whosoever in public intentionally expresses their views or engages in actions that in principle incite hostilities and are considered as abuse or defamation of a religion embraced in Indonesia.”
The human rights group has urged the government to repeal the Presidential Decision and Article 156a of the Criminal Code, which it said are used to imprison people for as long as five years for, in some cases, merely peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression or religion.