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CRIMINAL DEFAMATION AGAINST GOVERNMENT RULED UNCONSTITUTIONAL

The Indonesian Constitution Court has ruled that criminal defamation against the government is unconstitutional and therefore no longer binding, the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI), Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) and Human Rights Watch report.

On 17 July, Indonesia's Constitutional Court declared unconstitutional articles 154 and 155 of the country's Criminal Code, the "hate sowing" offences, which criminalised "public expression of feelings of hostility, hatred or contempt toward the government" and prohibited "the expression of such feelings or views through the public media." According to SEAPA, the articles, inherited from the former Dutch colonialists, allowed for prison terms of up to seven years.

The rights groups say the articles had been frequently used to protect government officials from public criticism. "Articles 154 and 155 were clearly backward and antiquated, and have no place in a modern society with aspirations for genuine democracy," SEAPA says. "Former president Suharto used the crude laws to imprison his critics over his three decades in power, and even after he had been deposed, the laws continued to hang over the heads of Indonesians who had anything to say about government and country."

Activist Panji Utomo had challenged the code at the Constitutional Court after he was sentenced to three months in prison by the Banda Aceh District Court for "spreading hatred" against the government during a 2006 protest rally. AJI also points to a 1995 case in which two of its members and one staff were sentenced to three years in jail under Article 154.

Human Rights Watch called on the Indonesian government to publicly acknowledge the court's decision and to immediately and unconditionally release all those currently imprisoned under the laws, including Yusak Pakage and Filep Karma, who were sentenced in April 2005 to 10 and 15 years in prison respectively for having raised the Papuan independence flag in the province of Papua.

"The court's decision to strike down this legislation raises hopes that it will also tackle the myriad other repressive laws still on Indonesia's books," says Human Rights Watch.

In December 2006, the Constitutional Court made another landmark ruling in favour of freedom of expression when it revoked three similarly restrictive articles that banned insults against the president, reports SEAPA.

Visit these links:
- AJI: http://tinyurl.com/3drbr9
- SEAPA: http://www.seapabkk.org/
- Human Rights Watch: http://tinyurl.com/2ldgy5
- December 2006 ruling: http://tinyurl.com/3art3z
(24 July 2007)

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