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INDONESIA: An atheist on trial for religious defamation in Padang, West Sumatra

April 18, 2012


Urgent Appeal Case: AHRC-UAC-063-2012


April 18 2012

INDONESIA: An atheist on trial for religious defamation in Padang, West Sumatra

ISSUES: Freedom of opinion, freedom of expression, freedom of religion

Dear friends,

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has received information regarding the arrest and trial of Alexander Aan, a 31-year-old civil servant in Padang, West Sumatra, who was arrested for posting a status on Facebook questioning the existence of god and administering a Facebook group called Ateis Minang (Minang Atheists). He is also being charged for uploading a note and comic depicting and insulting Prophet Muhammad. He has been indicted with three charges, including for disseminating religious hatred on the internet, which might lead to six-years imprisonment.


According to LBH Padang (Padang Legal Aid Institute), a local NGO part of the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation (YLBHI), on 18 January 2012 some residents of Pulau Punjung came to Alex's office in Dharmasraya, Padang, after learning that Alex had posted a note entitled 'The Prophet Muhammad was attracted to his own daughter-in-law' and a comic entitled 'The Prophet Muhammad had been sleeping with his wife's maid.' The local newspaper reported that Alex was close to being attacked by the mob, which was angry as they considered his posts to have insulted Islam. The police came right before Alex was attacked and he was later brought by the police to the Pulau Punjung sub-district police station for his own safety.

At the police station, Alex told the police that he is an atheist and that he is a member of a Facebook group named Ateis Minang. As one of his Facebook status updates, Alex wrote, 'if you believe in god, then please show him to me.'
His trial has commenced and he is indicted on three charges: disseminating information aimed at inflicting religious hatred (as prohibited in Article 28 (2) of the Electronic Information and Transaction (ITE) Law), religious blasphemy (under Article 156a (a) of the Indonesian Penal Code, KUHP) and calling for others to embrace atheism (under Article 156a (b) of the KUHP). According to the Prosecutor's Letter of Indictment, Alex's posts on Facebook are against Islam and had insulted the religion. Alex's posts have also caused outcry in the community whose members are mostly Muslim. Moreover, the prosecutor argued that Alex's posts may initiate hatred towards Islam in an individual or a group of individuals.

Indonesia is a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), article 19 paragraph (2) of which guarantees the right to freedom of expression. Although freedom of expression is not an absolute right, according to paragraph (3) of the article, it can be restricted only if the limitation is provided by law and necessary 'for respect of the rights or reputations of others and for the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals.'

In this case, whilst it is obvious that there is no public health or national security issues involved, it might be possible to argue that public order or public moral issues are at stake. Yet the Siracusa Principles on the Limitation and Derogation of Provisions in the ICCPR establishes that 'public order' is at threat when the rules that ensure the functioning of society are violated. Thereby, what Alex has done does not pose a threat to public order because the society still functions as it usually does; his actions cannot therefore be prohibited or restricted based on this reason.

Neither can it be claimed that Alex's posts have violated public morals, as according to various human rights interpretive documents, 'morals' should not be based merely on principles deriving exclusively from a single tradition. Under Islam's standard of morals, Alex's posts on Facebook might amount to a threat to public morals, but this might not be the case under the standards of other religions' or philosophies.

Bearing in mind that the 'rights or reputations of others' in article 19 (3) of the ICCPR refers only to individuals and not to abstract concepts such as religion or belief, it can be concluded that no one's rights or reputations are at stake in this case. This view has been upheld by the 2008 Joint Declaration on Defamation of Religions, And Anti-Terrorism and Anti-Extremist Legislation (Joint Declaration) issued by the special representatives of various regional and international human rights bodies.

Another permissible limitation on the freedom of expression is when the exercise of such right constitutes propaganda for war or any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence as enshrined in article 20 of the ICCPR. Again, Alex's posts do not amount to any of these. His note and comic merely tell a story on the sexual relationship between the Prophet Muhammad and his daughter-in-law and his wife's maid. These may constitute as insults, and may contain information not in accordance with the Quran, but they do not encourage anyone to discriminate, commit violence, or hostility against Islam or Muslims. If anything, Alex's posts should only be categorised as religious defamation, the concept of which however, is itself against human rights principles.  

As the Joint Declaration puts it, 'restrictions on freedom of expression should be limited in scope to the prediction of overriding individual rights and social interests, and should never be used to protect particular institutions, or abstract notions, concepts or beliefs, including religious ones.'

The right to freedom of religion cannot be used to justify the prohibition of religious defamation either. The right to freedom of religion does not include the right to protect religious feelings; it only covers the right to have, adopt and manifest one's religion.

It is also essential to emphasise that freedom of religion does not simply protect theistic beliefs but also non-theistic and atheistic beliefs as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief, as stipulated in the UN Human Rights Committee's General Comment No. 22. Indonesia, therefore, has the obligation to ensure that the atheists within its territory and jurisdiction can also exercise their belief as freely as other members in the society following particular religions.  

Please write to the listed authorities below urging them to stop the legal proceeding against Alexander Aan. More importantly, please request them to repeal any laws which are contradictory with Indonesia's international obligations on freedom of expression and freedom of religion.

To support this appeal, please click here: send-small.gif


Dear ___________,

INDONESIA: An atheist on trial for religious defamation in Padang, West Sumatra

Name of victim: Alexander Aan
Names of alleged perpetrators: Police officers of Pulau Punjung Sub-District Police Station, prosecutors of Sijunjung District Prosecutors Office, potentially the panel of judges at the Muaro Sijunjung District Court who examines Alex's case.
Date of incident: 18 January 2012 – present (ongoing)
Place of incident: Dharmasraya, Padang, West Sumatra

I am writing to voice my concern regarding the case of Alexander Aan, an atheist civil servant in Dharmasraya, Padang, West Sumatra. Alex was arrested, charged and tried for posting a status on Facebook questioning the existence of God. He is also alleged to have disseminated religious hatred on the internet by posting a note and comic on Facebook entitled ''The Prophet Muhammad was attracted to his own daughter-in-law' and 'The Prophet Muhammad had been sleeping with his wife's maid.'

According to the prosecutor's Letter of Indictment, Alex's actions have insulted Islam as well as caused outcry in the community. His posts are also considered as persuading others to embrace atheism, which is a crime under article 156a (b) of the Indonesian Penal Code (KUHP). In addition to this, Alex is also charged with article 28 (2) of the Electronic Information and Transaction (ITE) Law for disseminating religious hatred on the internet and article 156a (a) of the KUHP on religious defamation.

I seriously regret that the KUHP criminalises activities pertaining to persuading other people to embrace atheism. Article 156a (b) of KUHP is not only open to arbitrary interpretation, but it is also contradictory with the right to freedom of religion. I would like to remind you that Indonesia is a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which guarantees freedom of religion. According to the UN Human Rights Committee's General Comment No. 22, freedom of religion also includes the freedom to have and adopt atheistic belief. Alex's Facebook status questioning the existence of god is merely an expression of this belief, which should not be punished.

I am of the view that Alex's posts on Facebook should be seen as an exercise of his freedom of expression. While I am aware that such freedom might be subjected to restrictions, I would like to emphasise that these restrictions only apply when it is necessary to respect the rights or reputations of others and for the protection of national security, public order, health, or morals. In this case, Alex's action do not pose a threat to any of those; neither do they amounts to an advocacy of religious hatred, incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence. His posts might have insulted Muslims and Islam yet they do not contain any statements which encourage other people to discriminate, commit violence or be hostile to the Muslims. Moreover, under human rights principles, there is no such thing as 'the right not to be offended' and the freedom of religion does not include the right to protection of religious feelings.   

I would like to draw to your attention the Joint Declaration on Defamation of Religion which was issued in 2008 by the representatives of various human rights bodies who deal with the issue of freedom of expression (UN, OSCE, OAS and ACHPR). According to this declaration, "the concept of 'defamation of religions' does not accord with international standards regarding defamation, which refer to the protection of reputation of individuals, while religions, like all beliefs, cannot be said to have a reputation of their own". The Declaration also establishes that "restrictions on freedom of expression should be limited in scope to the prediction of overriding individual rights and social interests, and should never be used to protect particular institutions, or abstract notions, concepts or beliefs, including religious ones".

Based on all of these, I urge you to stop all legal proceedings against Alexander Aan as well as to release and provide him with adequate compensation. I strongly recommend you to withdraw any laws and provisions which are not in accordance with freedom of expression: the ITE Law as well as article 156a (a) and (b) of the KUHP. Only by so doing can the Indonesian government comply with its international obligations concerning the right to freedom of expression.

I look forward to seeing your swift action on this matter.

Yours sincerely,



1.    Mr. Susilo Bambang Yudoyono
President of the Republic of Indonesia
Jl. Veteran No. 16
Jakarta Pusat
Tel: +62 21 386 3777, 350 3088
Fax: +62 21 344 2223

2.    Prof. Harkristuti Harkrisnowo
Human Rights General Director
Ministry of Law and Human Rights
Jl. HR Rasuna Said Kav. C-1 Kuningan
Jakarta Selatan 12920
Tel: +62 21 252 1344
Fax: +62 21 45555 5676
E-mail: info@ham.go.id

3.    Mr. Suryadharma Ali
Minister of Religion Affairs
Jl. Lapangan Benteng Barat No. 3-4
Jakarta 10710
Fax: +62 21 381 2306
E-mail: pinmas@kemenag.go.id, dumas@kemenag.go.id

4.    Mr. Ifdhal Kasim
KOMNAS HAM (National Human Rights Commission)
Jl. Latuharhary No. 4B Menteng
Jakarta Pusat 10310
Tel:+62 21 3925 230
Fax: +62 21 3151042/3925227
E-mail: info@komnasham.or.id

5.    Mr. Basrief Arief
Attorney General
Jl. Sultan Hassanudin No. 1, Jakarta Selatan 12160
Tel: +62 21 722 1388, 720 3062
Fax: +62 21 725 1277

6.    Mr. Pipuk Firman Priyadi
Head of Sijunjung District Prosecutors Office
Jl. Sudirman No. 1 Muaro Sijunjung
Telp: +62 754 20036

7.    Mr. Suwarsa Hidayat
Head of Muaro Sijunjung District Court
Jl. Prof. M. Yamin, SH No. 51
Muaro Sijunjung 27511
West Sumatra
Tel: +62 754 20065
Fax: +62 754 20066
E-mail: info@pn-muaro.go.id


Thank you.

Urgent Appeals Programme
Asian Human Rights Commission (ua@ahrc.asia)

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Extended Introduction: Urgent Appeals, theory and practice

A need for dialogue

Many people across Asia are frustrated by the widespread lack of respect for human rights in their countries.  Some may be unhappy about the limitations on the freedom of expression or restrictions on privacy, while some are affected by police brutality and military killings.  Many others are frustrated with the absence of rights on labour issues, the environment, gender and the like. 

Yet the expression of this frustration tends to stay firmly in the private sphere.  People complain among friends and family and within their social circles, but often on a low profile basis. This kind of public discourse is not usually an effective measure of the situation in a country because it is so hard to monitor. 

Though the media may cover the issues in a broad manner they rarely broadcast the private fears and anxieties of the average person.  And along with censorship – a common blight in Asia – there is also often a conscious attempt in the media to reflect a positive or at least sober mood at home, where expressions of domestic malcontent are discouraged as unfashionably unpatriotic. Talking about issues like torture is rarely encouraged in the public realm.

There may also be unwritten, possibly unconscious social taboos that stop the public reflection of private grievances.  Where authoritarian control is tight, sophisticated strategies are put into play by equally sophisticated media practices to keep complaints out of the public space, sometimes very subtly.  In other places an inner consensus is influenced by the privileged section of a society, which can control social expression of those less fortunate.  Moral and ethical qualms can also be an obstacle.

In this way, causes for complaint go unaddressed, un-discussed and unresolved and oppression in its many forms, self perpetuates.  For any action to arise out of private frustration, people need ways to get these issues into the public sphere.

Changing society

In the past bridging this gap was a formidable task; it relied on channels of public expression that required money and were therefore controlled by investors.  Printing presses were expensive, which blocked the gate to expression to anyone without money.  Except in times of revolution the media in Asia has tended to serve the well-off and sideline or misrepresent the poor.

Still, thanks to the IT revolution it is now possible to communicate with large audiences at little cost.  In this situation there is a real avenue for taking issues from private to public, regardless of the class or caste of the individual.

Practical action

The AHRC Urgent Appeals system was created to give a voice to those affected by human rights violations, and by doing so, to create a network of support and open avenues for action.  If X’s freedom of expression is denied, if Y is tortured by someone in power or if Z finds his or her labour rights abused, the incident can be swiftly and effectively broadcast and dealt with. The resulting solidarity can lead to action, resolution and change. And as more people understand their rights and follow suit, as the human rights consciousness grows, change happens faster. The Internet has become one of the human rights community’s most powerful tools.   

At the core of the Urgent Appeals Program is the recording of human rights violations at a grass roots level with objectivity, sympathy and competence. Our information is firstly gathered on the ground, close to the victim of the violation, and is then broadcast by a team of advocates, who can apply decades of experience in the field and a working knowledge of the international human rights arena. The flow of information – due to domestic restrictions – often goes from the source and out to the international community via our program, which then builds a pressure for action that steadily makes its way back to the source through his or her own government.   However these cases in bulk create a narrative – and this is most important aspect of our program. As noted by Sri Lankan human rights lawyer and director of the Asian Human Rights Commission, Basil Fernando:

"The urgent appeal introduces narrative as the driving force for social change. This idea was well expressed in the film Amistad, regarding the issue of slavery. The old man in the film, former president and lawyer, states that to resolve this historical problem it is very essential to know the narrative of the people. It was on this basis that a court case is conducted later. The AHRC establishes the narrative of human rights violations through the urgent appeals. If the narrative is right, the organisation will be doing all right."

Patterns start to emerge as violations are documented across the continent, allowing us to take a more authoritative, systemic response, and to pinpoint the systems within each country that are breaking down. This way we are able to discover and explain why and how violations take place, and how they can most effectively be addressed. On this path, larger audiences have opened up to us and become involved: international NGOs and think tanks, national human rights commissions and United Nations bodies.  The program and its coordinators have become a well-used tool for the international media and for human rights education programs. All this helps pave the way for radical reforms to improve, protect and to promote human rights in the region.