An Indonesian court sent a “chilling message” Thursday by giving Muslim extremists light sentences for a vicious mob attack in which three sect members died, rights activists said.
Twelve people stood trial but none faced murder charges in what human rights campaigners said was a travesty of justice in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country.
The sentences ranged from between three and six months’ jail – less than prosecutors had sought and well below the maximum penalty of 12 years.
Dani bin Misra, a 17-year-old who repeatedly smashed a victim’s skull with a stone, was sentenced to three months in jail for manslaughter.
Most of the convicted men are likely to walk free within weeks, observers said.
“The Cikeusik trial sends the chilling message that attacks on minorities like the Ahmadiyah will be treated lightly by the legal system,” Human Rights Watch deputy chief for Asia Phil Robertson told AFP.
“This is a sad day for justice in Indonesia.”
In rare criticism of its Southeast Asian ally, the United States said it was “disappointed by the disproportionately light sentences”, which came within days of a visit to Indonesia by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“The United States encourages Indonesia to defend its tradition of tolerance for all religions, a tradition praised by President (Barack) Obama in his November 2010 visit to Jakarta,” a US embassy statement said.
The Obama administration resumed military ties with Indonesia’s notorious special forces unit last year, citing improvements in the human rights situation in the country.
The European Union delegation in Jakarta expressed “strong concerns” over the light sentences.
The violence against the Ahmadiyah sect members in Cikeusik, western Java, was one of the most horrific in a long line of attacks on the minority group in Indonesia in recent years.
Ahmadiyah, unlike mainstream Muslims, do not believe Mohammed was the last prophet and are regarded as heretics and blasphemers by conservatives in countries such as Indonesia and Pakistan.
A secretly filmed video of the Cikeusik rampage sparked international concern when it appeared online within days of the attack. The reaction in Indonesia, however, was muted.
The footage shows police fleeing the scene as the enraged mob – armed with machetes and knives and shouting abuse at the “infidels” – launched an unprovoked attack on a house owned by an Ahmadiyah follower.
A handful of Ahmadiyah men tried to defend the property with stones and slingshots but they were quickly overwhelmed. Then the killing began.
The mob clubbed and stoned their defenceless victims to death in front of police, then stood around and joked over their shattered bodies. Several Ahmadiyah tried to flee but were hunted down and badly beaten.
Robertson said the appalling “savagery” demanded a strong response from a country which has ratified international covenants on freedom of religion and claims to have a pluralistic religious tradition.
“But instead of charging the defendants with murder and other serious crimes, prosecutors came up with an almost laughable list of aslap-on-the wrista charges,” he said.
Prosecutors managed to convince the court that the video justified a reduced sentence for the killers.
Meanwhile Ahmadiyah member Deden Sujana is facing up to four years in jail on charges of incitement, disobeying police orders and maltreatment because he ignored police orders to evacuate the house.
Ahmadiyah spokesman Zafrullah Ahmad Pontoh was cautious in his response to the sentences. “Let the legal power handle the case. It’s only a worldly punishment,” he said.
“We’ll forgive those who ask us for forgiveness, but so far we haven’t heard them asking us for forgiveness.”
The graphic footage, which is available on the video-sharing website YouTube, was filmed by an Ahmadiyah follower who mingled with the attackers and watched his friends being murdered.
The man is now in hiding under police protection, fearing for his life. -By P. Saputra