The trail of blasphemy laws: Indonesian woman imprisoned for complaining about mosque noise

An Indonesian court sentenced a woman to 18 months imprisonment under blasphemy law for complaining that a mosque near to her home was creating too much noise during its call to prayer.

According to a spokesperson for a district court in North Sumatra, Meiliana, 44, an ethnic Chinese Buddhist, was found guilty on Tuesday of “insulting Islam” and jailed for 18 months. The woman had asked her neighbourhood mosque to lower its sound system because it was too loud and hurt her ears.

The city court of Medan on Sumatra island said the woman’s comment made in 2016, triggered riots that saw angry Muslim mobs ransack Buddhist temples.

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While the defendant’s lawyer, Rantau Sibarani, said his client would appeal the decision, Usman Hamid, Amnesty International Indonesia’s Executive Director showing displeasure on the court’s verdict said, “This ludicrous decision is a flagrant violation of freedom of expression. Sentencing someone to 18 months in prison for something so trivial is a stark illustration of the increasingly arbitrary and repressive application of the blasphemy law in the country,” and urged the court to reverse its ruling.

In 2015, while reviewing the practices adopted by Indonesia’s estimated 800,000 mosques, the Vice President Jusuf Kalla, who is also a member of the Indonesian Mosque Council, had concluded that places of worship should turn down their sound systems and not broadcast lengthy sermons to avoid agitating people living nearby.

According to monitoring by Human Rights Watch, since 2004, 147 people have been imprisoned for blasphemy or related laws. The number of cases has, however, slowed since 2014 under the administration of the current president, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo.

Indonesia is a sprawling archipelago of thousands of islands, which has a larger Muslim population than any other country in the world. While the country is officially pluralist, with six major religions recognized by the state, a recent rise in conservative interpretations of Islam aroused fears that the blasphemy laws were being used to subjugating minorities and violate religious freedoms.

According to Indonesia’s 1965 criminal code, any person who “deliberately” abuses a religion in public may be sentenced to up to five years in prison.

Last year, the former ethnic Chinese governor of Jakarta was tried and jailed for blasphemy after several Muslim groups accused him of insulting Islam when he said his political rivals were using the Quran to deceive voters.

The ruling was widely condemned and believed to be politically motivated. Basuki Tjahaja Purnama also lost his re-election bid because of the accusations.

With Islamic laws being extremely stringent, last year an anti-terrorism court (ATC) in Pakistan has sentenced a 30-year-old man, belonging to the minority Shia community, to death for allegedly posting blasphemous content on Facebook. The sentence is the harshest among cyber-crime related sentences handed down so far in Pakistan. This is perhaps the first ever case in the world when a social media user was sentenced to death by the court of law.

Figures obtained from independent records suggest that there have been at least 67 murders in Pakistan over unproven allegations since 1990.

In April this year, a stick-wielding mob in Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan beat up a student named Mashal Khan to death following a dorm debate about religion.

In January 2011, a provincial governor was shot dead by his police guard who accused him of blasphemy after he criticised the law and defended a Christian woman sentenced to death.

Asia Bibi, a Christian woman, was convicted in 2010 for alleged blasphemy. Bibi is still in solitary confinement.

According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, four people were sentenced to death for blasphemy last year.

Not long back, we had reported how an Indian-origin chef in the United Arab Emirates (a country that mostly disregards freedom of expression and takes cases of ‘blasphemy’ against Islam very seriously) had landed in a controversy with his life and livelihood jeopardized after he posted an allegedly anti-Islam tweet.

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