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Indonesia has second thoughts on capital punishment

Capital punishment has never been a contentious political or emotional issue in Indonesia. Although the death penalty is rarely applied, most people in the country still support its use, particularly for terrorists, serial killers, and even drug traffickers. The government would typically add treason to the short list of criminal offenses punishable by death.

So it comes as something of a surprise for Indonesia's small anti-capital punishment lobby that the issue has now been brought into public debate -- and even more so because the initiative came from the government.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has been quietly using his constitutional prerogative to grant pardons to drug convicts on death row, commuting their sentences to life imprisonment. Thanks to him, 19 drug offenders have been spared from the gallows since 2004.

What more, his decision appears to be going against the grain of majority opinion. Critics recall his 2004 election campaign promise (he was reelected in 2009) that he would wage war against drug traffickers and make sure they are punished in the severest terms, including death.

The Supreme Court -- with which the president is supposed to consult before granting pardons -- said that, in most of these cases, it did not recommend commuting death sentences to life terms. To the contrary, it has defended the death penalty as part of the country's legal system.

So where did this government impetus to reduce the number of death sentences come from?

An explanation came from Vice Minister for Law and Human Rights Denny Indrayana, during a seminar held this week to mark the International Day Against the Death Penalty, and it makes sense. The government's move is part of an effort to spare some of the 197 Indonesians facing death row abroad.

In other words, the government feels that if Indonesia shows more leniency, avoids using the death penalty or even abolishes it, this could become a powerful lobbying tool to save its own citizens convicted abroad.

This is not a question of reciprocity. Most of the Indonesians sentenced to death abroad are in Malaysia and Saudi Arabia, while Indonesia does not have any Saudis in its jails awaiting execution; if there are Malaysians among the 100 or so on death row in Indonesia, the number is unlikely to match the number of Indonesians in Malaysia. Of the 19 people whose death penalties were commuted by President Yudhoyono, only three were foreigners.

Still, the fact that Indonesia still has the death penalty on its books makes it difficult for the government, and particularly Indonesian embassies abroad, to make the case on behalf of its citizens to have their death sentences commuted as well.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Marty Natalegawa said Indonesia is one of 58 countries in the world that still uses capital punishment. He fell short of advocating its abolition entirely, but noted that most of the world has been moving in that direction.

It isn't clear how much support there is in Indonesia for the abolition of capital punishment, but statements and actions from the government indicate that it wants to open a public debate, and to receive at least some support for its diplomatic efforts to commute the sentences.

The last public consensus maintained that Indonesia should keep the death penalty for the most heinous of crimes. The Nahdlatul Ulama, an influential Islamic mass organization, even demanded that corruption be added to the list of capital offenses. 

With Indonesians travelling abroad more, including many migrant workers, some of them will inevitably get into serious trouble. While Indonesians probably have little sympathy for drug traffickers, some Indonesian workers, including young women serving as domestic helpers, have received death sentences for committing murders which many here regard as self defense against abusive employers.

Now Indonesia may argue that it is using the death penalty sparingly. Even fewer sentences have been executed due to the complexity and length of the legal appeals and case reviews. Many on death row will likely spend long years in prison before their fate is settled. The last reported execution in Indonesia happened in 2008: A total of eight persons went before the firing squad, including three Islamic terrorists responsible for the 2002 bombings that killed over 200 people on the holiday island of Bali.

But as long as the death penalty is still legally in the books, it will be difficult for Indonesia to ask foreign governments to show leniency for its own citizens sentenced to death.

The debate on capital punishment in Indonesia is just beginning.

SONNY TUMBELAKA/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Yes, I'm a blasphemer. Get over it.

On October 7, 2012, the office of the Egyptian General Prosecutor decided to start an official investigation accusing me of "blasphemy" -- or, as they call it, "insulting Islam." My crime was expressing my atheist beliefs on my Twitter account. The Egyptian authorities also arrested my friend Alber Saber on similar charges. He remains in jail to this day.

Egypt has signed many international treaties that ensure freedom of expression, but the Egyptian penal code still has approximately 20 laws that make certain opinions a crime.

The specified offenses include criticizing the president, the parliament, the military, or the judiciary. Criticizing a foreign president, such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Bashar Al-Assad, is also a crime, punishable with a three-year term in prison.

When I learned of the charges against me and Saber, I remembered my friend Kareem Amer, a famous Egyptian blogger who was sentenced to four years in prison in 2007 for insulting both Islam and then-President Mubarak. Kareem suffered a great deal in prison. He was tortured several times, and spent a long time in solitary confinement under horrible conditions.

The latest threat of legal action against me has also stirred up memories of my previous imprisonment last year, when I was imprisoned in Egypt for 10 months for the crime of "insulting the institution of the military." Since then, two corrupt police officers, Sayyed Abdel-Kareem and Mohammed Abdel-Rahman, have declared that they want to file an additional case against me. They're both accusing me of insulting Islam during my imprisonment in El-Marg Prison. They've tried to use this new case as a form of blackmail to keep me from speaking about the torture I faced while I was there. (Their accusation is entirely separate from the case brought against me by the prosecutor, by the way.)

Alber is not the only opinion prisoner in Egypt accused of criticizing Islam. There are at least six Christians (three of them under the age of 18), four atheists, and one Shiite who now face the same charges, and it is no surprise that not one of them is a Sunni Muslim. It's a new Inquisition happening in Egypt in the twenty-first century while the whole world remains silent.

It started last year when Ayman Youseef Mansour, a 22-year-old Christian blogger, was sentenced on October 22, 2011 to three years in prison because he criticized Islam on his Facebook page. Egyptian courts later refused his appeal, denying him his right to reconsider the severity of the sentence.

Ayman's case was followed in January 2012 by the case of Gamal Abdou Masoud, 17, a Christian from Asyut in Upper Egypt. Gamal was tagged on Facebook in a picture that criticized Islam. Angry mobs surrounded his house because of this picture, burned his house and the houses of other Christians in the village, and forced his family to leave. The police didn't arrest anyone from the mobs. Instead, Gamal was sentenced to three years in prison for "insulting Islam."

Then, in April 2012, another Christian was imprisoned on the same charges. Makarem Diab Said, a teacher (also from Asyut), was sentenced to six years simply for using some aggressive words against Islam when he was quarrelling with one of his colleagues at work.

Last month, on September 12, a court in Sohag sentenced another Christian, Bishoy El-Beheri to six years in prison for criticizing Islam and criticizing President Mohammed Morsi. This case is very similar to Kareem's. The only difference is that in Kareem's case he got only one year in jail for criticizing Mubarak, while criticizing the present president leads to three years.

Earlier this month, the Al-Ahram newspaper reported that two Coptic Christian children ,Nabil Nagy Rizk, 10, and Mina Nady Farag, 9, were arrested for insulting Islam because they were caught playing with papers that happened to have some verses of the Quran written on them. The kids were released later, but the case against them hasn't been dropped yet, meaning that they can be jailed also for three years.

On October 6, a female student, known only by her initials of "B.R.," went to the police station in Sharkia asking for help, complaining that her mother tried to poison her. But the authorities decided that the student and her boyfriend should be jailed because they are atheists who believe that premarital sex is not a sin.

It is not only atheists and Christians who are being jailed in Egypt for blasphemy. A Shiite man, Mohammed Asfour, was sentenced to three years in prison last July for speaking against the crimes made by followers of Mohammed the prophet of Islam.

Many others are in prison on the same charges and more will surely follow. The General Prosecutor has just sent a case against Google officials to the State Security Investigations department in Egypt, accusing the Internet company of failing to block the movie Innocence of Muslims from its search engine. The prosecutor has also started an investigation against the poet Hisham al-Gokh, whom he accused of insulting religion in his poetry.

These activists suffer because Egypt doesn't have an independent judiciary. Many cases take decades to go before Egyptian courts. But when the issue is political, they can finish the case in a few days, just as they finished my trial 12 days after my arrest in March 2011. They are now doing the same with Alber. Obviously there is a political reason for the Egyptian regime to jail him. They wish to intimidate Christians and other minorities to force them to leave the country. That is why Alber's trial is being processed so fast in comparison with other cases in Egypt. If there was a proper international response, perhaps they would proceed with more caution. Alber expects to be sentenced to three years' imprisonment within a short time. Meanwhile, though, there is a campaign supporting his freedom on Facebook and Twitter, which is gaining momentum every day.

The worst part is that this phenomenon of jailing bloggers on charges of "insulting religion" is now becoming widespread in Muslim countries. In Saudi Arabia, young blogger Hamza Kashgari is now in jail on blasphemy charges, and could face the death sentence. In Tunisia, Jabeur Mejri and Ghazi Beji were sentenced on March 28, 2012 to seven and a half years in prison. In Morocco, Mohammed Socrates is spending two years in jail for his atheism, but the authorities in Morocco were smart enough to accuse him of narcotics trafficking, and there is no need to say that he confessed under torture. One might even include Malala Yousafzai, the 14-year-old girl shot by the Pakistani Taliban because of her public calls for secularism and female education.

Religions are just collections of beliefs which can't be proved. I still can't imagine that in the twenty-first century there are people going to prison because they don't believe that someone walked on water, a virgin gave birth to a child, or a man flew to heaven on a donkey. Tolerating this new Inquisition moves our world back to the Middle Ages, and this could have devastating consequences for our lives.

Maikel Nabil Sanad is an Egyptian activist and leader of the "No to Compulsory Military Service" Movement. He became a prisoner of conscience after boycotting military trials in August 2011 and spent 130 days on a hunger strike. He is also a member of the board of Cyberdissidents.org.

KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/GettyImages