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Obama urged to make a stand for human rights during Indonesia visit

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - Jakarta, November 8, 2010 - US President Barack Obama's visit to Indonesia on November 9 through 11, 2010, is an important opportunity to make a stand for free expression, religious freedom, and a rights-respecting, accountable military in Indonesia, Human Rights Watch said today.

During the visit, Obama and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono are expected to discuss the US-Indonesia Comprehensive Partnership. The partnership addresses bilateral concerns including trade and investment, security and defense, education, health care, and energy, as well as transnational issues such as climate change and humanitarian relief. While Indonesia has made great strides on a number of human rights issues since it emerged from authoritarian rule nearly 12 years ago, serious challenges remain that could undermine Indonesia's stability and democracy in the absence of real institutional reform, Human Rights Watch said.

"Indonesia has made some good progress over the last decade, but that doesn't mean President Obama should ignore other serious human rights problems," said Sophie Richardson, acting Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Obama should encourage Indonesia to take concrete measures to protect free expression and religious freedom, and to require accountability by the armed forces."

Indonesia has failed to show adequate respect for critical human rights such as freedom of expression and religion, Human Rights Watch said. In other areas where Indonesia has expressed a commitment to change, such as military reform, efforts have stalled. And although Indonesia has made some progress in combating corruption, graft remains a serious problem that impedes progress in fulfilling its human rights obligations.

A February 25 letter from Human Rights Watch to Obama highlighted a number of areas in which he should seek concrete human rights commitments from Yudhoyono. Human Rights Watch urged Obama to call for the release of the dozens of political prisoners, primarily from politically tense areas such as Papua and the Mollucas, imprisoned for engaging in nonviolent demonstrations, raising flags, and displaying pro-independence symbols.

Obama should also call for the repeal of laws that criminalize "insulting" public officials and defamation, which Indonesian authorities have used to silence anti-corruption activists, human rights defenders, and citizens who publicly aired consumer complaints or allegations of misconduct.

He should also call on the Indonesian government to take stronger efforts to protect members of religious minorities from discrimination and violence and to repeal dozens of laws that unfairly restrict the rights of women, discriminate against non-Muslims, and give the government the authority to prosecute people for holding religious beliefs it considers "blasphemous." The religious affairs minister has repeatedly called for an outright ban of the Ahmadiyah, a minority who consider themselves Muslim but whom some other Muslims perceive to be heretics, and violence by Islamist militants against Ahmadi communities has increased.

"Media freedom has improved in Indonesia, but rights-respecting governments do not imprison people for peacefully airing critical views," Richardson said. "Obama should also raise the plight of religious minorities and denounce laws that discriminate against women."

Human Rights Watch urged Obama to call for Indonesia to restore free unhindered access for diplomats, foreign journalists, and human rights groups to the province of Papua, where the Indonesian military and police have frequently committed human rights abuses against civilians with impunity. In May 2009, the government closed the office of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Papua.

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