Indonesia frees ethnic Chinese woman jailed for blasphemy

Meliana, who was sentenced to 18 months in jail for blasphemy, has been released on parole.

 

By Aisyah Llewellyn

 

Al Jazeera (23.05.2019) – https://bit.ly/2wfvGbq– Meliana, a woman from Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese minority sentenced last year to 18 months in prison for blasphemy, has been released on parole.

 

The 44-year-old, a Buddhist, celebrated her freedom on Tuesday night at a local dim sum restaurant in Medan, the capital of North Sumatra province, with friends and relatives, having spent almost a year behind bars.

 

“I’m delighted that I could meet my family tonight, with my children and my kind husband who has been so loyal to me and who brought me food in prison every day,” she said. The mother of four also thanked the prison staff for treating her well throughout her incarceration.

 

Meliana was jailed in August 2018 after being found guilty of committing blasphemy over remarks she allegedly made on the volume of the speakers at a mosque near her home in Tanjung Balai, nearly 200km south of Medan.

 

A crowd laid siege to Meliana’s house and 11 temples were torched after the July 2016 incident was picked up on social media, with some claiming that she had asked for the call to prayer to be stopped – a claim denied by Meliana and her lawyer.

 

“There is no evidence that she committed blasphemy. This hoax spread in the course of a week and ruined a woman’s life in the process,” her lawyer, Ranto Sibarani, had previously told Al Jazeera.

 

Meiliana said that in her conversation with a neighbour she had only ever remarked that the azan – the Muslim call to prayer – had become a little louder, and had not asked for the volume to be lowered.

 

She was convicted based on the testimony of several mosque custodians and a local lecturer who came to Meliana’s home to confront her about the exchange with her neighbour. In a statement, they claimed that Meliana screamed at them and said the sound of the azan hurt her ears. No recorded evidence of their claims was submitted in court.

 

An appeal against the conviction, which was criticised by human rights groups, was rejected in April.

‘Very happy’

Under Indonesian law, Meliana was eligible for parole having served two-thirds of her sentence. She also received remission for Wesak Day, the celebration of Buddha’s birthday which is a national holiday in Indonesia. Inmates are usually given sentence reductions around religious celebrations in accordance with their religious beliefs.

 

While Sibarani, the lawyer, said that he was pleased Meliana had won parole, he also believed that his client should not have spent a single day in prison.

 

“We are very happy that Meliana’s parole request was granted and that Meliana was released on parole today after serving … a year in prison for a crime we believe that she should never have been sentenced for,” he said, adding that he was in the process of deciding whether to file a judicial review to establish his client’s innocence.

 

Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population, but it is also home to sizeable numbers of Buddhist and Christian minorities. In Tanjung Balai, there are about 11,000 Buddhists out of a population of 185,000.

 

There has been widespread criticism of Indonesia’s blasphemy law, which in recent years has been wielded against minority groups, including the former governor of Jakarta, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, an ethnic Chinese. He was freed from prison earlier this year.

 

Now that she is a free woman once more, Meliana plans to start a new food business. She said she harboured no animosity regarding her sentence, despite the fact that her family home was attacked during the rioting and her children threatened. They were rescued from the house by a passing pedicab driver, a Muslim.

 

“We need to stay united, we need to be good Indonesian citizens,” she said.




Supreme Court orders Kandhamal Christian freed on bail after 10 years in prison

World Watch Monitor (22.05.2019) – https://bit.ly/2K0N1Nk– Gornath Chalanseth, one of seven Christians jailed for life for the murder of a Hindu swami in the Kandhamal district of Odisha state in eastern India, has been freed on bail by India’s Supreme Court yesterday, May 21.

 

The seven – three of whom are Dalits, the other four tribals – continue to maintain their innocence.

 

However, only Chalanseth’s bail application was filed in the Supreme Court – after Odisha High Court had rejected it for a second time last December. Once given bail, there is no deadline to return to jail unless ordered by the Supreme Court.

 

A former Supreme Court Justice Cyriac Joseph and former Kerala High Court Justice P K Shamsuddin, have criticized the delays in hearing the men’s appeal.

 

“This (delay) is a failure of the judicial system. In the judicial process, appeal could be delayed for many reasons. But in this case there are no (technical) reasons to keep it pending. It seems to be deliberately delayed, perhaps so that it is brought before a suitable judge,” remarked Justice Joseph a year ago.

 

“When we were convicted (in 2013), it was a shock. It was very stressful for me when I put behind bars for murder, despite being innocent” Chalanseth told World Watch Monitor as he walked free. “10 years, five months and six days [in prison]…I thank God for the freedom. My joy has no words.”

 

Chalanseth received an emotional welcome at the iron gate of the district jail in Phulbani (headquarters of Kandhamal district) where over two dozen members his family had gathered for hours impatiently since morning.

 

“This is the happiest day of my life,” said Rutha, Gornath’s wife as she waited for her husband’s release clutching a bouquet of flowers in her hands.

 

All Chalanseth’s four children, including his married daughter Santilatha, had joined his three brothers, sister and stepmother who had undertaken a five hour journey from Kotagarh area to be at the jail to welcome Gornath as he stepped into freedom – on the May 9 order on a plea by the legal team of New Delhi-based ADF (Alliance Defending Freedom).

 

“The only one missing here is our grandfather – 90 year old Bachan Chalanseth. He is too old to make this long journey,” explained Nithaniel Chalanseth, eldest of his three sons, who had been busy rushing around to get the bail order executed.

 

“I have only faint memory of the days when our father was taken away,” remarked a beaming 17-year old Shisir, who completed school exams two months ago. “But now it is a day of great joy for us as papa is going to be with us.”

 

After greeting his family, Chalanseth was ushered into a nearby church and shouted his thanksgiving, tears of joy running down his cheeks.

 

He, along with six others – Bhaskar Sunamajhi, Bijay Sanseth, Buddhadev Nayak, Durjo Sunamajhi, Sanatan Badamajhi and mentally challenged Munda Badamajhi – was convicted to life imprisonment by the third judge on their case, after the first two had been transferred away from it.

 

“Gradually I found solace in prayer. Prayer gave me peace of mind and I always remained disciplined in the jail,” Gornath said.

 

Impressed by his conduct, jail officials made him ‘wall guard’ to watch over 40 prisoners in the Phulbani jail that had over 400 prisoners.

 

“I had the freedom to move freely around for 12 hours (day) and was not confined to cells,” Gornath said proudly.

 

As the news of the bail from the Supreme Court came, the jail chief asked Gornath: “How will we find a replacement for you as wall guard?”

 

While sipping joy of walking out to freedom from captivity of a decade, Gornath said a twinge of sadness: “I happy with my freedom but there are other innocents in jail. Six of Kandhamal’s innocents are also in jail.”

 

Chalanseth, 41, was taken into police custody on 13 December 2008, but initially suspected nothing as he was active in politics.

 

His cousin, a pastor, accompanied him to the police station, and saw him taken away. A couple of days later, after his cousin had not returned, the cousin went back to the station and heard he had been charged with murder.

 

Since his conviction, he’s been released twice on ‘parole ‘ for a short time, the last occasion was Christmas 2017. That time was the first two week ‘parole’ for Bijay Sanseth.

 

Background

 

Nearly 100 Christians were killed and 300 churches and 6,000 Christian homes damaged in the Kandhamal district of Odisha, after the killing of Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati on 23 August 2008.

 

By the end of that year, the seven had been arrested. In 2013, they were found guilty of the murder by the trial court and each sentenced to life imprisonment.

 

The convictions shocked India’s Christian community, which was still reeling after the deadly attacks, and Christian advocates have been fighting for their release ever since.

 

Since 2008, the local community has struggled to receive adequate compensation from the government, which has been a source of much contention. A year ago, a decade on, the Odisha High Court forced the Odisha government to make available more than 153 million rupees (US$2.28 million) to pay compensation to about 6,000 people who either lost family members, were injured or who lost their homes in the riots.

 

A conspiracy?

 

The website release7innocents.com outlines the major discrepancies and apparent injustices in the case against the Christians.

 

“The trial court convicted the seven accused and sentenced them to life imprisonment on the basis of a fabricated ‘Christian conspiracy theory’ despite hardly any credible evidence brought before the court,” it states.

 

The website complains that these discrepancies within the case against the seven were apparent right from the start, when Hindu fundamentalists blamed Christians for the Swami’s murder.

 

Last December, the lifetime prison sentence given to a top Indian politician for his involvement in riots that led to the killing of 2,700 Sikhs in 1984, gave hope to India’s Christian minority still waiting for justice.




Dennis Christensen’s six-year prison sentence maintained on appeal

Picture: JW.org

HRWF (23.05.2019) – Today, the three-judge panel of the Oryol Regional Court denied the appeal of Dennis Christensen, a Danish citizen and Jehovah’s Witness,and upheld the six-year sentence he received in February. About 80 people, mostly Jehovah’s Witnesses, were in attendance to hear the decision. Officials from Denmark and Australia were also present.

 

Mr. Christensen was arrested on 25 May 2017, in Oryol, during the raid of a peaceful gathering of Jehovah’s Witnesses by Federal Security Service agents and armed police officers wearing masks. Some 50 other worshippers were also arrested but later released without charge.

 

The raid and arrest came after Russia’s Supreme Court banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses in April 2017 over alleged extremism. It was the first time that a Jehovah’s Witness has been jailed since the Soviet Union.

 

After his May arrest, The Sovietsky District Court ordered him to be held in pre-trial detention for two months, which he appealed unsuccessfully. On 20 July 2017 the Soviet district court of the city of Orel, ordered Mr. Christensen to remain in an investigation cell for another 4 months, until 23 November. Despite appeals, his pre-trial detention was repeatedly prolonged.

 

On 6 February 2019,  the Zheleznodorozhniy District Court of Oryol found Mr. Christensen guilty under Article 282.2 (1) of the Russian Criminal Code for “organising the activity of an extremist organization.” He was sentenced to 6 years in prison.




A closer look at the UK’s only FGM conviction

By Elisa Van Ruiten, Human Rights Without Frontiers

 

HRWF (22.05.2019) – In February 2019, the mother of a young girl became the first person in the United Kingdom to be convicted of female genital mutilation (FGM)for cutting her three-year-old daughter in 2017.[1] Her Ghanaian partner, who was also charged with the crime, was exonerated.[2] Both had been living in the UK for several years.

 

The mother is originally from Uganda, where FGM is illegal and the estimated prevalence is around 1.4%. The practice has been concentrated in certain regions and ethnic groups.[3] It is not known why the mother performed FGM on her daughter but authorities mentioned the possibility of a link to witchcraft.

 

The facts and prosecution

 

On 28 August 2017, the mother, who was living in East London, called the emergency services for an ambulance approximately 12 hours after the injury occurred, the girl having lost a large amount of blood. She claimed that the child had accidentally sustained an injury to her genitals after a fall on a kitchen cupboard. However, as the ambulance could not come quickly, the girl was taken to hospital in a taxi. At hospital, the mother told the medical staff again the same story. She maintained the same version with the police, the medical staff, the social services, and in court.[4]

 

This version of the facts was rejected by the jury as itwas not supported by medical examiners and the prosecution brought forward evidence of ‘witchcraft’.[5]

 

Both mother and father of the girl in this case were charged with two counts of FGM:

 

  • Count 1:Female Genital Mutilation, contrary to section 1(1) of the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003. Both defendants on 28 August 2017 excised, or otherwise mutilated, the whole or any part of the labia minora or clitoris of the complainant
  • Count 2:Failing to protect a girl from the risk of genital mutilation, contrary to Section 3a of the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003. Both defendants on 28 August 2017 had parental responsibility for the complainant, a girl under the age of 16 against whom an offence of female genital mutilation was committed.[6]

 

The father was acquitted of the FGM charges, but the mother, in addition to the two counts of FGM, was also convicted on other charges of possessing indecent images of children and extreme pornography. In March, she was sentenced to eleven years in prison for the FGM charges and two more years for the other charges.[7]

 

The UK criminalised FGM in 1985 under the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985,which was superseded by the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003.[8]

 

What led to conviction?

 

Although a few other allegedFGM cases had previously been brought forth, none ended in conviction. For example, in 2015, a gynaecologist was indicted on FGM charges for having stitched a woman’s genitals after she gave birth. However, he was later acquitted.[9]

 

In the present case, there were several factors that contributed to the conviction; There was the evidence that the girl had in fact been cut; the medical examination at hospital concluded she had suffered a Type II cut[10]and there was the testimony from the victim herself who claimed she was cut by a “witch-lady”.[11]  In addition, the brother was also a witness, and bizarre evidence was found at the home relating to the incident that prosecutors deemed to have been something akin to ‘witchcraft’.[12]

 

In deciding upon the sentence length for the charge of FGM, Ms Justice Whipple took into account both aggravating and mitigating factors of the crime. Adding to the gravity of the act was that it had occurred at home, a place the defendant’s daughter should have felt safe and protected. Furthermore, the defendant’s son was present and witnessed the ordeal. On the other hand, the defendant was the primary caregiver of both children, who were now placed in foster care. In addition, the fact that the girl was not under a FGM protection order[13] and the defendant did eventually take her daughter to the hospital were both seen as slightly mitigating circumstances.[14]

FGM protection orders in the UK

 

Under the Serious Crime Act of 2015, an FGM Protection Order may be issued by a court to protect someone who is at risk of FGM or has already been subjected to FGM. Such protection orders may include travel prohibitions, the surrender of passports, in addition to other restrictions and requirements. It is a criminal offense to breach a protective order and if breached “is punishable on summary conviction with up to 12 months’ imprisonment or a fine; or on conviction on indictment, with up to 5 years’ imprisonment or a fine.”[15]

 

348 protective orders had been made in the UK as of December 2018.[16]

 

More on FGM protection orders here.

 

Click here for further information and resources about FGM in the UK.

 


Footnotes:

[1]https://www.cps.gov.uk/london-north/news/mother-first-be-convicted-female-genital-mutilation and https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/01/world/europe/female-genital-mutilation-conviction-britain.html?module=inline; To protect the identity of the child, there are reporting restrictions: no name is made public.

[2]https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/mar/08/mother-of-three-year-old-is-first-in-uk-to-be-convicted-of-fgm, Note: The father pled guilty to charges of being in possession of child pornography and bestiality images.

[3]https://www.28toomany.org/static/media/uploads/Country%20Images/PDF/uganda_report_15jul13.pdf See details about the ethnic groups and the regions in the executive summary, pp 9-12.

[4]https://www.judiciary.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/r-v-n-female-genital-mutilation-sentencing-remarks-whipple-j.pdf

[5]https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/mar/08/mother-of-three-year-old-is-first-in-uk-to-be-convicted-of-fgm and https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/01/world/europe/female-genital-mutilation-conviction-britain.html?module=inline

[6]https://www.cps.gov.uk/london-north/news/mother-first-be-convicted-female-genital-mutilation

[7]https://www.judiciary.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/r-v-n-female-genital-mutilation-sentencing-remarks-whipple-j.pdf

[8]The Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 came into effect “on 3 March 2004 and was amended by sections 70 to 75 Serious Crime Act 2015. Sections 70 to72 which came into force on 3 May 2015, and which:

  • extended the scope of extra-territorial offences
  • granted victims of FGM lifelong anonymity; and
  • introduced a new offence of failing to protect a girl from risk of FGM.

Sections 73 came into force on 17 July 2015; section 74 came into force on 31 October 2015. These provisions introduced FGM Protection Orders and a mandatory duty for front line professionals to report FGM. Section 74 provides for issue of statutory guidance on FGM, this provision has not yet come into force.”The crime carries a maximum prison sentence of 14 years. https://www.cps.gov.uk/legal-guidance/female-genital-mutilation-prosecution-guidance#_blank

[9]https://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/feb/04/doctor-not-guilty-fgm-dhanuson-dharmasena

[10]TYPE II FGM by the World Health Organisation. See: https://www.who.int/reproductivehealth/topics/fgm/overview/en/

[11]“…the victim later told specially – trained officers she had been cut by a “witch”.” https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/mar/08/mother-of-three-year-old-is-first-in-uk-to-be-convicted-of-fgm

[12]Ibid.

[13]Ibid.

[14]https://www.judiciary.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/r-v-n-female-genital-mutilation-sentencing-remarks-whipple-j.pdf

[15]https://www.cps.gov.uk/legal-guidance/female-genital-mutilation-prosecution-guidance#_blank

[16]See page 11: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/789792/FCSQ_October_to_December_2018_-_final.pdf




Pakistan’s most famous accused blasphemer escaped to Canada. Others remain on death row.

Islamist activists in Karachi, Pakistan, carry placards against Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman who was recently released after spending eight years on death row for blasphemy, during a rally in. (Asif Hassan/AFP/Getty Images)

 

 

By Pamela Constable

The Washington Post (18.05.2019) – https://wapo.st/2VUYzsv – One prisoner is an illiterate Christian street cleaner who got into an argument with a Muslim friend while they were out drinking. Another is a U.S.-trained university professor whose liberal Facebook posts upset Islamist student activists.

A third is a middle-aged woman who occupies the cell vacated by Asia Bibi, the Pakistani field hand who was sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010 and acquitted by the Pakistan Supreme Court twice. She was allowed to leave for Canada this month after spending nearly a decade on death row.

These three Pakistanis are among 40 imprisoned on blasphemy charges or convictions. About half are serving life terms, and half have been sentenced to death. Pakistan has never executed anyone for blasphemy, but many convicts are held in solitary confinement for years while awaiting appeals.

Bibi’s acquittal and welcome abroad have given other long-term detainees cause for hope, but their lawyers and family members say it is a slim one. Accused blasphemers are reviled by the public, few lawyers are willing to represent them, and lower courts are pressured to convict. Appeals courts often commute death sentences to life terms, but only after years of tension, isolation and often declining health.

One convicted man, Wajihul Hasan, has been on death row since 2002. Just two weeks after Bibi was acquitted last November, two brothers in Lahore, Qaiser and Amoon Ayub, were sentenced to hang for making “derogatory remarks” about the prophet Muhammad on a Christian website.

“Now that Asia Bibi is free, I pray that God will help my husband too,” said Sobia Masih, 30, the wife of Sawan Masih, a street cleaner in Lahore who was accused of insulting Islam in 2013 during a dispute. He was sentenced to death in 2014, and Sobia last saw him in prison at Christmas. “This has turned our lives upside down,” she said. “I have to live in hiding, and my children do not tell anyone he is their father.”

As with many blasphemy cases, the charges against Masih were widely reported to have ulterior motives. His family and neighbors said local industry owners wanted to seize the area to build steel mills. Nearby Muslims, enraged by rumors of Masih’s offensive talk, attacked and burned the Christian neighborhoodto the ground.

“I handed Sawan over to the police myself so the mob wouldn’t kill him,” said Joseph Francis, a Christian activist at a legal aid center in Lahore that assists blasphemy defendants.

Mob violence against accused blasphemers is common in Pakistan, though rarely prosecuted. This past week, a Pakistani court upheld death sentences for three Muslims, but acquitted two others, in the 2014 mob killing of a Christian couple who were falsely accused of throwing Koran pages in the trash. They were beaten to death and thrown into an open-air brick furnace.

The ruling reflected growing judicial concern over religious violence at a time of increasing organized agitation against blasphemy, including death threats against Bibi. Confrontations have spread from poor minority communities to college campuses with hard-line Islamist student groups.

In 2013, Fulbright scholar Junaid Hafeez had returned from studying at Jackson State University in Mississippi and was teaching English literature at a university in Multan city. An outspoken liberal, he was denounced by Islamist students for hosting feminist authors. They also accused him of posting offensive material on Facebook, including comments about the wives of the prophet Muhammad.

The police arrested him, searched his laptop and charged him with blasphemy. Hafeez has remained in solitary confinement since 2014, while efforts to defend him have been thwarted by threats and violence. His first lawyer quit after being hounded by conservative colleagues. His second lawyer, human rights activist Rashid Rehman, was warned in court by prosecutors that he would not be alive for the next hearing on Hafeez’s case.

Several days later, Rehman was shot dead in his office by unknown gunmen.

Hafeez is now represented by Asad Jamal, who said that repeated court delays have prevented his case from coming to trial. He said Hafeez, now 33, was seen as a threat by various campus interests and framed for provocative online writings that were circulated or electronically altered by others.

“There was complex conspiracy against him,” Jamal said. “Junaid raised questions on many social issues, but there is nothing blasphemous in anything he wrote or posted.” After five years in prison, he said, the outgoing academic and poet has become “an agitated, angry person.”

Many Muslim countries have laws against blasphemy, but Pakistan’s are exceptionally harsh and easy to abuse. Any act intended to “outrage religious feelings” is punishable by 10 years in prison. Defiling the Koran mandates a life sentence, and “derogatory” comments against the prophet Muhammad require “mandatory death.”

There is a special law for Ahmadis, a religious minority that claims to be Muslim but is widely ostracized and legally banned from proselytizing. Ahmadis are frequent targets of personally motivated blasphemy charges, and four are in prison under death sentences. But the mere accusation, Ahmadi leaders say, can be ruinous.

“Once you are blamed for blasphemy, your life is gone,” said Saleem ud Din, a spokesman for the national Ahmadi Community organization. “No matter how unfounded the allegations, and even if the court acquits, you can’t take chances because you can be killed.”

Even though Muslims such as Hafeez can be charged with blasphemy, most defendants are members of religious minorities, often Christians from poor communities. Increasingly, cellphones and social media are playing a role, and police investigators go to enormous efforts to track blasphemous content in emails or texts.

The woman imprisoned in Bibi’s old cell, Shagufta Masih, was convicted with her husband Shafqat of sending blasphemous texts to the owner of an Islamic bookstall in Lahore. The couple have limited educations and had worked for years as school custodians, but police said they traced offensive English-language texts to their cellphone SIM cards.

In 2014, a judge ruled they had both committed a “heinous offense” against Islam and sentenced both to hang.

Saif ul-Maluk, the lawyer who previously defended Bibi, now represents the couple. He said the charges against them were fabricated and that someone had used their SIM cards to malign them, possibly due to a personal dispute. He said Shagufta had told him that the police beat her husband and threatened to “parade her naked in public” if he did not confess.

“The whole story was false,” he said.

 

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Also:

HRWF database of news and information on over 70 countries: http://hrwf.eu/newsletters/forb/ 
List of hundreds of documented cases of believers of various faiths in 20 countries: http://hrwf.eu/forb/forb-and-blasphemy-prisoners-list/