Church in Indonesia Campaigns for Abolition of Death Penalty

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Church officials were relieved when the Indonesian government at the last minute indefinitely postponed the execution of three Catholics, honoring an appeal by Pope Benedict XVI.

Fabianus Tibo, 60, Dominggus da Silva, 39, and Marinus Riwu, 48, were due to face a firing squad Aug. 12. But the execution was stayed just hours ahead of the deadline as a result of an appeal to Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the president of Indonesia, the most populous Muslim-majority nation in the world.

Tibo, da Silva and Riwu were convicted in 2001 for the murder of 200 Muslims in a spree from May to June 2000 in Poso on Central Sulawesi Island. And even though the executions have been put off indefinitely, Church officials are far from relaxed.

“We cannot just relax. Anything is possible here,” Bishop Ignatius Suharyo, secretary general of the Indonesian Bishops’ Conference, told the Register in a Sept. 7 telephone interview.

Asked how long the stay of execution would continue, Bishop Suharyo, who heads the Semarang Diocese said: “There is no time limit. They could be executed anytime. We are really worried.”

‘Growing Demands’

To illustrate his point, Bishop Suharyo also admitted there are already “growing demands from a section that the Catholics should be executed along with the Bali convicts.”

He was referring to three Muslims, Amrozi bin Nurhasyim, Mukhlas bin Nurhasyim and Imam Samudra, who have been sentenced to death for the October 12, 2002 bombings in Bali that killed more than 200 people, mostly Western tourists.

“The Church is opposed to the death penalty, and there are more than 60 people already facing a death sentence here,” the bishop said. “So, we are trying to lobby against the death penalty itself in a situation like this.”

With some Islamic groups openly opposing any clemency for the condemned Catholics, the Church, as well as some human rights activists in Indonesia, has said that a campaign to outlaw the death penalty altogether can save not only the lives of those on death row but of many others similarly condemned in the future.

Diametrically opposed to that stance is the head of Indonesia’s

Constitutional Court
, Jimly Ashiddiqie, who has publicly stated that the plans to execute the Catholics should not be made public to prevent any further delays.

The three Muslims convicted of murder have authorized their lawyers appeal to Indonesia’s Supreme Court to review their cases prior to the execution that was scheduled for Aug. 22. This last-minute change of heart by the Bali trio was heartening to those opposed to the death penalty, such as the Church.

The Church is hoping to be part of a collaboration with secular action groups to strengthen and spread awareness on the campaign against the death penalty. This is in addition to Catholic students staging demonstrations in different parts of the Indonesian archipelago.

Human rights groups allege that the three Catholics were convicted in a highly biased trial with pressure from Islamic militants influencing the court verdict. They also point out that the death sentence against minority Catholics was the result of selective prosecution.

However, Muslim groups are in no mood to let the Catholics get away with murder. More than 4,000 demonstrators took to the streets in Poso Sept. 4, shutting down the city’s schools, businesses and public transit, demanding the government carry out the sentence against the three “as required by law.”

Meanwhile, a new police chief has been installed in Central Sulawesi. Badrootin Haiti, former police superintendent in Banten, has replaced Brig. Gen. Oegroseno, who played a key role in the stay of execution of Tibo, da Silva and Riwu.

In fact, Oegroseno’s transfer on Aug. 31 is widely seen as a setback for those campaigning for reopening the charge against the three.

Human rights activists and the legal team representing the Catholic prisoners have strongly protested the decision, pointing out that the transfer has silenced one of the most authoritative voices seeking the truth about the 1999-2000 Christian-Muslim clashes in Poso.

Oegroseno has been a strong believer in the need to suspend the execution, and his removal as police chief, they point out, was politically motivated, showing that the government is bent on carrying out the death sentence.

“The enigma of who was responsible for what happened in Poso must be solved,” said Oegroseno at a press conference after his transfer was announced. “Leaders of the Christian and Muslim communities must have the courage to tell the truth.”

The transfer has evoked strong protests even in Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, with attorneys representing the three condemned men staging a march to the police headquarters to protest the “move to silence a good police officer willing to take a critical stance.”

Indonesia mourns; the voice of truth has been banned,” read one of the banners carried in the march. “After this decision (to remove Oegroseno), we are very worried not only about the three prisoners’ fate but also about what could happen to interfaith peace and harmony in Central Sulawesi for which he worked so hard during his tenure in office,” said Norbert Bethan, a member of the three prisoners’ legal team.

Bishop Suharyo told the Register that “our friends in Jakarta are doing their best to lobby with the government on this (abolition of the death penalty). We hope and pray that this campaign succeeds.”

Anto Akkara is based in New Delhi, India.