Indonesia's treatment of 'deviant' sects under the spotlight

Jakarta, Indonesia — Indonesian activists are accusing the government of riding roughshod over people's rights after outlawing a number of religious sects that it had accused of being "deviant".

In 2007 alone, official decrees have branded at least four Islamic sects "deviant," including one led by a self-proclaimed female prophet who was jailed and another headed by a man claiming to be the last prophet who is now in police custody.

The latter sect is known as Al-Qiyadah Al-Islamiyah and its leader Ahmad Moshaddeq broke one of Islam's central tenets when he called himself the final prophet, as Muslims believe that title bnelongs to Mohammed alone.

Moshaddeq's home was attacked in October by neighbours and the government shortly afterwards banned his group of about 400 followers.

Moshaddeq, who surrendered himself to police on expectation of arrest, will face charges of contempt against a religion, police have said.

Lia Aminuddin, an former florist in her late 50s, was given a two-year jail term in 2006 for heading the God's Kingdom of Eden sect, which at its peak had several hundred members.

"I think that the government has already gone too far. There is something very wrong in the way they deal with this," said Trisno Susanto, from the Inter-religious Dialogue Community, a non-government organisation promoting communication between religions.

Susanto, who is a Roman Catholic in the world's most populous Muslim nation, told AFP the bans were based on fatwas, or religious legal opinions, issued by the Indonesian Council of Ulemas (MUI), an umbrella group of leading Islamic organisations.

He argues however that in the national legal structure, MUI has no authority and that religion is starting to creep into the affairs of state.

"Their fatwas are mere Islamic legal opinion and this is a fatal mistake that is turning our legal structure into a mess," he warned.

Uli Parulian Sihombing, from the Indonesian Legal Resource Centre, said the government's actions run counter to the 1945 constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion, and the 1966 UN covenant on civil and political rights, to which Indonesia is a signatory.

The government had a right to restrict religions, but not ban them, he said, while any restriction should be transparent and follow set criteria, such as threatening national stability.

"Of the sects banned recently, I do not think any meets that criterion. None are actually threatening national stability," Sihombing said. "We are, in essence, a country of pluralism, not like some country in the Middle East, for example."

Farid, from the office monitoring the sects overseen by the attorney general, contended that a 2004 law mandating the attorney general's power effectively permits it to ban sects seen as a threat to national security.

And he claimed the banned sects had violated tenets of Islam so they could spark anger and unrest amid other Muslims.

The vast majority of Muslims in Indonesia practise a very tolerant form of the religion.

"Under the law it is clearly the duty and the authority of the prosecutor's office to conduct surveillance on faiths which may endanger the state and the nation," he told AFP.

Teams at district level study any religious sect suspected of being deviant, Farid said.

A copy of the law seen by AFP however only states that the prosecutor's office may take part in efforts to conduct "surveillance on faith that could endanger the society and the state" and to prevent "the misuse or the contempt of religions". It does not mention a power to ban.

"Repressive actions will never be able to overcome sects. This concerns personal religious convictions," the Dialogue's Susanto said. The best thing for the government to do, he said, would instead be to open a "dialogue and open ourselves to different views".

Repression of sects -- usually small, local operations -- would only encourage them to radicalise, pushing them underground and turning them militant and "into the real thing," he added.

Susanto said that sects had always been around in Indonesia, but during the draconian rule of former dictator Suharto, information was strictly controlled so sect activity was not publicised. Authorities took a long time before admitting cases where violence had been used against sects.

"Nowadays, you can hear about whatever trivial things that happened anywhere. In one way it helps draw people to the various sects, and in another way it alerts people and the authorities about their existence," he said.