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Indonesian Court Rejects Legal Intervention for Jailed Teachers

by Sarah Page

Compass News

Judges at Indonesia ’s Constitutional Court on January 17 ruled that the Child Protection Act is in line with the constitution and should not be amended.

The Rev. Ruyandi Hutasoit of the Prosperous Peace Party had challenged Article 86 of the Act, which was used as the basis for sentencing Dr. Rebekka Zakaria, Eti Pangesti and Ratna Bangun to three years in prison on September 1, 2005.

The Christian Sunday school teachers were arrested in May 2005 after members of the local Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI or Muslim Clerics Council) in Indramayu district, West Java , accused them of trying to convert Muslim children.

Judges at the September trial found the women guilty of breaching the Child Protection Act, saying they had used “deceitful conduct, a series of lies and enticements to seduce children to change their religion against their wills.”

The maximum sentence under Article 86 of the Act is a five-year jail term and/or a 100 million rupiah (US$10,536) fine for anyone found guilty of persuading children to convert to another religion.

Lawyer Posma Rajagukguk lodged an appeal at the High Court in Bandung , the provincial capital of West Java , in mid-September, but the appeal was rejected in November.

Legal Challenge

Rev. Hutasoit, of Church of the Shining Christian in Jakarta , then presented his own legal challenge. His lawyers argued that Article 86 of the Act contravened the constitution, which guarantees all citizens the freedom to practice the religion of their choice.

Rev. Hutasoit had asked that the Act be reviewed on these grounds, The Jakarta Post reported.

Judge Jimly Asshiddique, however, said Rev. Hutasoit had no right to contest the Child Protection Act, since he had not experienced any “direct losses” under the Act.

The court also ruled that Article 86 was consistent with the constitution – since the article clearly forbade the use of “tricks, lies or force” to convert children.

Rev. Hutasoit’s lawyer, Henri Rudiono Lie, told The Jakarta Post he would consider filing another appeal, saying, “Maybe we can find someone else who was victimized by this law as the judges suggested.”

Rajagukguk also plans to appeal the women’s conviction in a higher court.

Judges, Witnesses Intimidated

Zakaria, Pangesti and Bangun launched their “Happy Sunday” Christian education program in September 2003, at the request of a school in the Harguelis sub-district of Indramayu . The school had asked them to conduct the program for Christian children in compliance with the National Education System Bill that came into effect in June 2003.

When Muslim children asked to join the programs and outings, the women insisted that their families give prior permission. The children’s parents met this condition, although consent was verbal rather than written.

During the trial, defense attorneys pointed out that several of the Muslim parents were photographed with their children during the Sunday school activities, proof that they had allowed their children to attend.

When the trial began, truckloads of Muslim youth arrived outside the courtroom, waving banners and using loudspeakers to intimidate the judges. At one court session they brought a coffin with them, warning the judges that the accused must be found guilty.

The Muslim parents who had allowed their children to attend the program were intimidated by the furor and refused to testify in support of the accused.