Jakarta, Indonesia - An Indonesian man extolling the virtues of atheism and posting controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad online has been jailed for two-and-a-half years. It is a verdict human rights activists say is a step backward for the majority Muslim nation they say is known for religious tolerance.
It was posting the words “God does not exist” on his Facebook page that first caused trouble for 30-year-old Alexander Aan.
The civil servant from Sumatra was beaten by an angry mob and later arrested, but it was not only for his admission of atheism.
Aan had also posted several explicit cartoons of the prophet Muhammad online, one depicting the prophet having sex with his servant, another that showed him finding his daughter-in-law sexually alluring.
Facing charges of blasphemy, inciting hatred and encouraging atheism, a Sumatra court ruled Thursday that Aan will spend the next two-and-a-half years in prison and pay a $10,000 fine.
His lawyer Deddi Alparesi said the decision is unjust. The judges did not consider the facts, Aparesi said, as Alexander never intended to spread religious hatred.
The lawyer also pointed out that an Islamic professor even took to the stand to verify that Aan is “theologically anxious” and does not have anyone with whom he can discuss his thoughts on atheism.
While the charges of blasphemy and promoting atheism were dismissed, Aan was found guilty of spreading religious hatred under the controversial 2008 electronic transactions law.
His legal team intends to appeal the ruling, but analysts say it is another setback for religious freedom in Indonesia.
Like the uproar in many Muslim-majority countries following the 2005 publication of cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper, the case has raised debate over the distinction between freedom of expression and inciting religious hatred.
Andreas Harsono from Human Rights Watch compared Aan's sentence with the few months Islamic hardliners were given for beating three individuals to death last year in Jakarta. He says the ruling is symbolic of deepening religious intolerance.
“It says a lot about the relative impunity of people that commit violence in the name of religion, meanwhile while those people who politely using no violence, no matter how controversial it is, is now being punished to 30 months in prison,” Harsono said.
In other acts of religious intolerance across the country this week, a national book publisher was pressured into burning hundreds of copies of a book that allegedly defames the prophet.
In Aceh, religious conservatives demanded the closure of 20 churches and, last week, there was a move to ban the sale of tight clothing in the sharia ruled province.
Earlier this month, flamboyant U.S. pop star Lady Gaga canceled the Jakarta leg of her Asian tour after Islamic hardliners threatened to block the concert.
Freedom of religion is technically guaranteed in the world’s most-populous Muslim nation, but Indonesians must adhere to one of the six official religions. Atheism is not a sanctioned option.