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High Court Rejects Appeal for Schoolteachers in Indonesia

Compass News

by Sarah Page

Dr. Rebekka Zakaria, one of three women imprisoned for breaching Indonesia ’s Child Protection Law, had secretly prayed to be home for Christmas.

Zakaria conveyed this wish to a Compass staff member during a prison visit in October. At the time, lawyer Posma Rajagukguk was preparing an appeal to the provincial High Court, seeking to overturn their conviction.

The court, however, rejected the appeal in mid November.

Zakaria, Eti Pangesti and Ratna Bangun were sentenced to three years in prison on September 1, after allowing Muslim children to attend a Christian education program. The children’s parents had given verbal permission, but when Muslim radicals took the case to court in June, the parents were afraid to testify on behalf of the defendants. (See Compass Direct, “Indonesian Sunday School Teachers Sentenced to Three Years in Prison,” September 1.)

A school in the Indramayu district had asked the Christian Church of David’s Camp, pastored by Zakaria, to run the program for Christian students, as required by the National Education System Bill of 2003.

Rajagukguk will appeal to a higher court in the new year. His clients, however, will spend this Christmas behind bars – joining countless other Christians around the world who are imprisoned on charges of blasphemy, worshiping in unregistered churches, or similar charges that are themselves breaches of international human rights covenants.

During the prison visit in October, all three women seemed calm and at peace, although Bangun was tearful when visiting time came to an end.

Zakaria said several friends had encouraged her to write down the “faith lessons” she was learning in prison. She will do so eventually, she said – so far she’s received so many visitors that she hasn’t had time to get to it.

“I never imagined I would be in prison – never,” she added. “But I will submit to whatever God wants for me.”

Zakaria’s daughter still brings food to the prison almost daily. One visitor also brought in a small gas stove; the women use this to cook meals for themselves and others in their cell block. Prison food barely meets basic nutritional needs and is far from appetizing.

Surprisingly, since Muslim radicals forced Zakaria’s church to close in December of last year, prison guards have allowed her to hold a church service in the prison courtyard on Sundays. Around 35 church members attend each week.

Letters arriving from countries around the world are also a huge encouragement, although the women are embarrassed that they cannot reply to them all.

While the letters have provided emotional strength, the rejection of the appeal was a major blow.

There is still some hope that the sentence may be reduced, as in the case of the Rev. Rinaldy Damanik, an Indonesian pastor imprisoned for three years on what many believe were false charges. A Muslim cleric intervened on Damanik’s behalf and secured an early release for him in 2004.

Politician Ruyandi Hutasoit challenged the constitutionality of the Child Protection Law in court in November. His lawyers said that Article 86 of the law – which carries a maximum penalty of five years’ imprisonment for offenders – should be declared unconstitutional and struck down, the Jakarta Post reported on November 19.

The case, however, was adjourned to allow Hutasoit to “amend” his legal arguments.

With these developments in mind, Zakaria, Pangesti and Bangun have asked for ongoing prayer. The prospect of three years in prison is difficult to face – especially with Christmas fast approaching.