'A cannon to shoot sparrows': New Indonesian anti-Islamist law slammed

Thousands of Indonesian Muslims protest against the Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama known widely as "Ahok" on March 31.

Story highlights

  • The new law will likely be used to disband conservative Indonesian Muslim groups
  • But rights groups have condemned removing court appeal for banned organizations

(CNN)An Indonesian government decree that allows the country's president to disband religious and civil society organizations without a right of appeal has been condemned by human rights organizations.

Announced Wednesday, the newly revised law is the latest shot in the ongoing war between Indonesian President Joko Widodo's administration and the hardline Islamic groups which have plagued his presidency in recent years.
    "There is a logic in it for Widodo, for this government ... but this is like using a cannon to shoot sparrows, it is like burning a barn just to catch some mice. It is just overkill," Human Rights Watch researcher Andreas Harsono told CNN.
    US President Donald Trump (R) and Indonesia's President Joko Widodo hold a meeting on July 8, 2017.
    The new decree, which revises a previous law from 2013, removes the need for court approval when disbanding an organization, and introduces criminal penalties for disobeying the law, including long periods in prison, according to local media.
    "We will have legal support to act whenever there are mass organizations that are clearly endangering the country's ideology by contradicting it," Indonesian Minister for Politics, Security and Law, Wiranto, said at a press conference Wednesday, adding the previous law was no longer "sufficient." Wiranto only goes by one name.
    Indonesian Coordinating Minister for Politics, Security and Law Wiranto announces the presidential decree on July 12.
    Right groups expressed concern the new laws could be used to target a far wider range of religious and minority groups, not just at a federal level but in provinces and cities.
    "This law is a dangerous law ... it is of course a breach of the right to freedom of assembly, it is a breach of freedom of speech and freedom of thought," said Harsono.
    The law still needs to be approved by Indonesia's parliament before it comes into effect, but as Widodo's coalition has a large parliamentary majority the law's passage is almost certain.

    Widodo vs conservative Islam

    The new law is widely considered to be the first step in the government's plans to ban conservative Islamic group Hizbut Tahrir in Indonesia.
    Hizbut Tahrir is an international Islamic organization which supports a global caliphate run in accordance with Shariah law. The group has been banned in more than a dozen countries, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, China and Russia.
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    Harsono estimated Hizbut Tahrir have about 40,000 members in Indonesia, who have called for change through non-violent means.
    Conservative groups such as Hizbut Tahrir have been a thorn in the side of democratically elected Widodo -- who supports religious pluralism -- holding mass demonstrations against religious minorities, LGBT people and anyone they perceive to have blasphemed Islam.
    They were among those calling for the imprisonment of Jakarta governor and Widodo ally Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, also known as Ahok, who was sentenced to two years prison for blasphemy.
    In May, Minister Wiranto announced a move to ban the group, according to local media, while Widodo said other organizations were also being considered for a potential ban.
    The actual process of banning an organization has been streamlined dramatically, University of New South Wales senior lecturer Melissa Crouch told CNN.
    "The original law contained a number of stages in the warning process and involved seeking the permission of the courts. These (18 provisions) have now all been deleted," she said.
    Crouch said the new legislation centralized power with the minister responsible and cancellation could occur as soon as the offense was registered.
    "Instead of asking a group that breaches the law from ceasing activities for a time, the amendment now says they must cease their activities immediately, no allowances given."

    Rights organizations condemn ban

    The decree allows for the banning of groups which go against Indonesia's founding principles of Pancasila, which calls for religious tolerance and diversity, according to Wiranto.
    But the law's vague wording and the inclusion of references to separatist and "Marxist" groups mean it could be used against religious minorities and advocates for Papuan independence, human rights groups said.
    "Peaceful political activism (by independence groups) is already severely restricted and hundreds of people have been arrested and imprisoned for such activities," Amnesty International said in a report.
    Muslim student activists take part in an anti-government rally in Jakarta on July 12.
    Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty called for the law to be revised or removed.
    Director of Jakarta's Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, Sidney Jones, said the law could force conservative Islamic groups underground or worse.
    "There is a possibility that some Hizbut Tahrir members will decide to turn more militant, though probably not a lot. I think the bigger issue is that the organization itself will survive but survive on a clandestine basis, and that's no good for anybody," she said.
    Widodo could simply have used the original law in its more complicated form to tackle the group, Jones said.
    "The easiest thing to do would be not to try to ban Hizbut Tahrir at all, especially since it's never been involved in violence," she said.
    Harsono said the law could be challenged in Indonesia's Constitutional Court or revised in parliament but that could take "years."