Criticism mounts in Indonesia against jailing of woman for complaining about volume of mosque speaker

Meliana, a Buddhist, was jailed for complaining to a neighbour about the volume of the azan (call to prayer) from the speaker of the community mosque. PHOTO: REUTERS

JAKARTA - Criticism has mounted, even among Muslims, against the jailing of an Indonesian woman of Chinese descent for complaining to a neighbour about the volume of the azan (call to prayer) from the speaker of the community mosque.

Civil society groups and lawyers denounced the verdict as excessive and silly while the two biggest Muslim organisations in the country, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, questioned the use of the blasphemy clause against the woman.

"I do not see how saying 'azan is too loud' is an expression of hatred or hostility towards a particular group or religion," Mr Robikin Emhas, head of the legal, human rights and legislation department at Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia's largest Muslim organisation with more than 80 million members, was quoted as saying in a statement.

The blasphemy clause should not be used to "bulldoze" anyone's right to express opinions and Muslims should consider such opinions as "constructive criticism in a plural society", he said.

Muhammadiyah secretary Abdul Mu'ti, who described the woman's sentence as "too heavy", suggested that an in-depth study be conducted to review blasphemy-related articles and laws.

One expert on syariah or Islamic law also doubted if the woman had blasphemed.

"Anyone's response to azan cannot be construed as a response to a religious teaching, hence cannot be considered as a blasphemy," said Mr Rumadi Ahmad, who teaches in the syariah and law faculty at the Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University in Jakarta.

Meliana, 44, a Buddhist, was found guilty on Tuesday (Aug 21) of blasphemy by the Medan district court in North Sumatra and sentenced to 1½ years in prison. The mother of four is a resident of Tanjung Balai sub-district in the eastern part of the province. Her husband, a labourer at a local swallow's nest farm which supplies bird's nests to restaurants, lost his job because of her trial.

This week's verdict was the result of an old case dating back to July 2016, and it is unclear why local prosecutors revived it.

On July 22, 2016, Meliana was speaking with the owner of a small convenience store, who was her neighbour, when she referred to the volume of the speaker at the nearby mosque, saying that it had become louder than previously.

The neighbour then conveyed what Meliana said to her family members and it started to spread. Soon, it turned into a rumour that Meliana was trying to ban the Muslim call to prayer. This quickly spread on social media, which then triggered riots as Muslims, offended by the remarks, went on the rampage. Several Buddhist temples were burnt in what was believed to be the worst bout of anti-Chinese violence in the country since 1998.

Several people were later convicted of looting, destroying property and inciting violence. They were sentenced to jail for between one and four months.

A team of lawyers representing Meliana said in a statement on Thursday (Aug 23) that prosecutors had failed to provide adequate evidence during her trial to establish the fact that a crime had been committed.

"The indictment stated that the crime was committed on July 29, 2016, where in fact on that date, Meliana became a victim of a mob who descended on her house... who then vandalised and burned her house," the team of lawyers said in the statement.

The lawyers insisted that their client only did what other housewives in the neighbourhood normally do, which is to chat with one another.

"While doing her shopping that day, she confided to the store owner saying the volume of the mosque loudspeaker is high nowadays. It wasn't so last time," the lawyers said in the statement.

The lawyers are appealing against the verdict.

Dozens of people, including former Jakarta governor Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama, have been sent to prison under Indonesia's controversial blasphemy laws, the Jakarta Post reported.

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