Asia Watch: Both sides of the coin
Jul 2, 2012 | Michael Shannon
Over the past decade, Indonesia’s counter-terror operations have been undeniably effective, with all of the key Jemaah Islamiah (JI) leaders either dead or behind bars. The successes pile up, yet the extremism and intolerance that provided the basis of the worst acts of terror still finds expression in less violent but perhaps more pervasive form.
The former was illustrated yet again by the seizure of more than US$800,000 in assets belonging to an alleged terrorist group in North Sumatra on June 22, but most notably with the conviction of JI kingpin Umar Patek on the previous day.
The Patek conviction, however, has not been universally greeted as a successful prosecution.
Long suspected of being a mastermind of the 2002 Bali bombings that killed 202 people, prosecutors wanted judges to give him a life sentence, but judges issued Patek 20 years in jail.
The West Jakarta District Court found Patek guilty of illegally possessing firearms, explosive devices and chemicals. They also found him guilty of premeditated murder in the Bali bombing and in Jakarta’s Christmas Eve church bombing of 2000, which killed 19. He was also deemed guilty of withholding information about terrorism, document forgeries and helping to establish a terrorist training camp in Aceh in 2010.
The judges did not, however, find any evidence of Patek’s role as one of the masterminds of the Bali bombing, which helped him avoid a life sentence. Another factor in their leniency was Patek’s declarations of remorse, apologising for the outcome and downplaying his role in it.
He told the five judges in the West Jakarta District Court that he had tried to convince a number of his co-conspirators not to go ahead with the plot, saying a more proper way to conduct jihad would be to “go to Palestine and fight the Jews who slaughtered Palestinians.”
The fact that the still-committed jihadi veteran known in Indonesia as the “Demolition Man”, who mixed the chemicals for the Bali bombs and was on the run for nine years with a US$1 million bounty on his head, received just a 20-year sentence while some of his co-plotters were jailed for life or executed has left a sour aftertaste for some observers.
Indonesian terrorism analyst Dynno Creesbon told the Jakarta Post that the failure to convince judges to hand Patek a life sentence is solely the fault of prosecutors. “The charges were weak and were unable to be corroborated in court. Prosecutors will always face an uphill battle in terrorism trials, because terrorists always protect one another in court,” he said.
Criminologist Bambang Widodo Umar said a heavier sentence may have resulted if the trial was held in Bali. “Social conditions can affect the way judges think… The people and culture in Bali have been conditioned to be antipathetic towards terrorism,” he told the Jakarta Post.
There is no doubt, however, that social conditions are less favourable for religious dissension and that Indonesia’s once admired reputation for tolerance is not what it was.
Shortly after the Islamic Defenders Front forced the cancellation of a sold-out performance by the popular singer Lady Gaga, on June 14, a judge sentenced a professed atheist to prison instead of prosecuting the mob that chased him down and beat him badly in January after he posted his lack of religious affiliation on Facebook. Over the objections of activists and a wide range of international organisations, a West Sumatran court sentenced Alexander Aan, a 32-year-old civil servant, to 30 months in prison while those who attacked him never faced court.
Among other things, Aan started an atheist group on Facebook on which he shared comic strips of the Prophet Muhammad having sex with his servant. He also uploaded three articles on his account, including one describing the prophet being attracted to his daughter-in-law.
While two charges – persuading others to embrace atheism and blasphemy – were dropped, he was convicted of a hate crime under the 2008 “Electronic Information and Transactions” law.
“What he did has caused anxiety to the community and tarnished Islam,” presiding judge Eka Prasetya Budi Dharma told the district court in western Sumatra.
Human rights activists pointed out that Indonesia had ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which meant the Government was obliged to protect members of minority faiths, including those identifying themselves as atheists.
Even a petition to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in support of Aan, sponsored by Human Rights Watch, along with several other Indonesian and international organisations including the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, was to no avail.