Amnesty calls on Indonesia to nix harsh blasphemy laws

JAKARTA - Indonesia's new president must repeal the country's tough blasphemy laws, Amnesty International urged Friday, pointing to an increase in the number of people imprisoned for their beliefs in recent years.

The Britain-based rights group said incarceration of individuals under the blasphemy laws had "skyrocketed" during former leader Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's 10 years in power resulting in the jailing of more than 100 people.

Joko Widodo, who was inaugurated last month, should repeal the laws - which carry a maximum jail sentence of five years and which are used to punish people for such minor "offences" as whistling while praying - the group said in a report launched Friday.

"We've documented more than 100 individuals who have been jailed for nothing but peacefully expressing their beliefs," said Rupert Abbott, deputy director of Amnesty's Asia-Pacific Programme.

"President Joko Widodo's new administration has an opportunity to reverse this disturbing trend and usher in a new era of respect for human rights," he added.

Indonesia is home to the world's biggest Muslim population, where a vast majority practise a moderate form of Islam.

However, Amnesty noted that minority groups seem to suffer the most under the blasphemy laws and that religious tolerance in the country had deteriorated.

One example of this, the rights group said, is the case of Tajul Muluk, a Shiite Muslim leader, who is serving four years in jail for blasphemy and causing "public anxiety".

Muluk ran a religious school in east Java until Sunni Muslim leaders opposed his teachings as "deviant" and police launched a blasphemy case against him in 2012, according to Amnesty.

Shiites in his village have been forced to leave their homes under threat from angry mobs.

In another case, 30-year-old Alexander An, a civil servant, was sentenced in 2012 to two-and-a-half years in prison for posting a comment on a local atheist Facebook page. In that case too he was threatened by an angry mob outside his workplace.

"The shrinking space for religious freedom in Indonesia over the past decade is deeply worrying. The new government under President Widodo has an opportunity to turn the page on this issue - this can't be missed," Abbott said.