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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Alexander Aan case - I urge you to write

I am in the process of sending a letter in the following terms to the Indonesian authorities. It should be self-explanatory. If you want to send something similar, go here. I have somewhat modified the suggested text provided. I encourage you to use your own words to whatever extent you think appropriate.

Name of victim: Alexander Aan
Names of alleged perpetrators: Police officers of Pulau Punjung Sub-District Police Station, prosecutors of Sijunjung District Prosecutors Office, potentially the panel of judges at the Muaro Sijunjung District Court involved in examining Mr Aan's case.
Date of incident: 18 January 2012 - present (ongoing)
Place of incident: Dharmasraya, Padang, West Sumatra

I am writing to voice my concern regarding the case of Alexander Aan, an atheist civil servant in Dharmasraya, Padang, West Sumatra. Mr Aan was arrested, charged and tried for posting a status on Facebook questioning the existence of God. He is also alleged to have disseminated religious hatred on the internet by posting a note and comic on Facebook entitled "The Prophet Muhammad was attracted to his own daughter-in-law" and "The Prophet Muhammad had been sleeping with his wife's maid."

Mr Aan's postings were an exercise of free expression on matters relating to religious beliefs, and Indonesia is a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which guarantees freedom of expression and freedom of religion. His posts did not incite, condone, or glorify violence or persecution of anyone, Muslim or otherwise. Though some have found his posts insulting, there is no human right to freedom from feeling offended.

According to the prosecutor's Letter of Indictment, Mr Aan's actions have insulted Islam as well as caused outcry in the community. His posts are also considered as persuading others to embrace atheism, which is a crime under article 156a (b) of the Indonesian Penal Code (KUHP). In addition to this, Alex is also charged with article 28 (2) of the Electronic Information and Transaction (ITE) Law for disseminating religious hatred on the internet and article 156a (a) of the KUHP on religious defamation.

I deplore the fact that the KUHP criminalises activities pertaining to persuading other people to embrace atheism. Article 156a (b) of KUHP is not only open to arbitrary interpretation, but it also contradicts the rights to freedom of religion and freedom of expression. I would like to remind you that Indonesia is a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which guarantees these rights.

According to the UN Human Rights Committee's General Comment No. 22, freedom of religion also includes the freedom to have and adopt atheistic belief. Mr Aan's Facebook status questioning the existence of god is merely an expression of this belief, which should not be punished.

Furthermore, Mr Aan's posts on Facebook should be seen as an exercise of his freedom of expression. While I am aware that such freedom might be subjected to restrictions, I would like to emphasise that these restrictions apply only when it is necessary to respect the rights or reputations of others and for the protection of national security, public order, health, or morals. In this case, Mr Aan's action do not pose a threat to any of those; neither do they amount to an advocacy of religious hatred, incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.

I would like to draw to your attention the Joint Declaration on Defamation of Religion which was issued in 2008 by the representatives of various human rights bodies who deal with the issue of freedom of expression (UN, OSCE, OAS and ACHPR). According to this declaration, "the concept of 'defamation of religions' does not accord with international standards regarding defamation, which refer to the protection of reputation of individuals, while religions, like all beliefs, cannot be said to have a reputation of their own". The Declaration also establishes that "restrictions on freedom of expression should be limited in scope to the prediction of overriding individual rights and social interests, and should never be used to protect particular institutions, or abstract notions, concepts or beliefs, including religious ones".

Accordingly, I urge you to stop all legal proceedings against Alexander Aan as well as to release and provide him with adequate compensation. I strongly recommend that you withdraw any laws and provisions which are not in accordance with freedom of religion and freedom of expression. Only by so doing can the Indonesian government comply with its international obligations concerning the right to freedom of expression and freedom of religion.

I was alerted to Alexander’s situation by the Center for Inquiry (CFI), a nonprofit organization based in the U.S. that stands for science, reason, and secular values such as the separation of religion from government and the basic freedoms of thought, conscience, and speech. CFI has affiliate organizations and branches all over the world, and holds special consultive status at the United Nations under the UN Economic and Social Council.

I look forward to seeing swift action on this matter.

Yours sincerely,
Dr Russell Blackford

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