It’s a short drive to the Tanjung Gusta Women’s Prison on the outskirts of Medan—about half an hour from the centre of town, on roads that skirt the city’s upscale malls and past stalls selling phone credit and petrol. Medan is the provincial capital of North Sumatra, and in August 2018 a Chinese-Indonesian Buddhist was handed an 18-month sentence for blasphemy by its district court.
The conviction rocked Indonesia and prompted an outpouring of support for Meliana, a 44-year-old mother of four who was a former resident of the port city of Tanjung Balai. She was arrested and charged under Indonesia’s blasphemy law (Pasal 156A KUHP) over a disputed comment about the volume of the speakers at her local mosque, and in April 2019, her legal team received the news that her final appeal against her sentence had been rejected by the Supreme Court in Jakarta.
Now she’s finally speaking out about her case.
“I never asked for the adzan [Muslim call to prayer] to be stopped,” she tells New Naratif during an exclusive face-to-face interview in the visitor’s hall of the prison.
It’s a few days after her final appeal was denied, and Meliana sits cross-legged on the floor with her stalwart lawyer Ranto Sibarani and her softly spoken husband Lian “Atui” Tui. As they chat and drink thick black coffee, the scene is more reminiscent of a family picnic than a visit to a secure correctional facility.
Meliana teases Atui about finding a new wife while she’s incarcerated. “If anyone will have you, that is,” she adds, shooting him a sideways glance. In turn, Atui hugs his wife and says that she’s become even more beautiful since she’s been in prison. Then they both burst out laughing. They seem happy, and still very much in love.
But it’s been a brutal journey to get to this point. And when the conversation turns to her conviction, the mood changes dramatically.
“I never said any of the things I was accused of,” Meliana says, dabbing her eyes with a tissue as Atui rubs her back.
Fearful of fueling the online surge of racial hostility that this case created, Meliana’s legal team have always been wary of speaking to the media, shielding her from interviews. But they’re mindful that everyone else has been allowed to have their say, from neighbours, to mosque custodians, religious leaders, the police, lawyers, judges and social media commentators.
Meliana’s story is one of racial tensions, online hate campaigns, mob-related violence, and the radicalisation of Indonesia’s notoriously corrupt legal system.
All of these things breathe life into the blasphemy law in Indonesia—and this is one woman’s account of what it feels like to live through the firestorm her case triggered.
How it all began
Meliana’s blasphemy sentence stems from a disputed comment she made on 22 July 2016 to her neighbour Kasini, a Javanese Muslim. While buying groceries from Kasini’s shop, Meiliana uttered a single sentence that ruined her life: “Sister, our mosque’s speakers didn’t use to be very loud, lately they sound a little louder.”
In an interview with New Naratif back in September 2018, Kasini claimed that Meliana asked for the volume of the speakers at the Al Ma’shum Mosque to be lowered as the sound bothered her. Kasini said she’d passed on the request to custodians of the mosque, and that no one seemed particularly upset or offended.
But as there were no witnesses or recordings of the conversation, Meliana’s case became a classic example of trial by social media.
Word incorrectly spread on social media platforms that a Chinese-Indonesian Buddhist had ordered a local mosque to stop the call to prayer. Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population as 87% of residents follow Islam, but it’s also home to sizeable Buddhist and Christian minority communities.
In a country where race and religion have historically been flashpoints for violence between these various communities, Meliana’s original comment, incorrectly framed on the Internet, was like a tinderbox.
As there were no witnesses or recordings of the conversation, Meliana’s case became a classic example of trial by social media
A week later, her family was having dinner at home when they were startled by a knock on the door. The ulama of the mosque, Haris Tua Marpaung, was outside with another of the building’s custodians, Rifa’I, and a local lecturer named Dr Dailami—a regular worshipper at Masjid Al Ma’shum. A crowd of over 50 people—a mix of neighbours and strangers—had also formed on her front lawn.
“The ulama immediately started asking why I’d ordered the adzan to be stopped,” Meliana says. “I replied that I’d never said such a thing”.
The crowd became incensed. Meliana heard cries to drag her out of the house and voices screaming at her to “leave Tanjung Balai” and “get out of here!”
Six months later, Marpaung, Dailami and Rifa’I signed a statement which was used as evidence at her trial and formed the basis of her conviction.
It’s a damning document. In the statement, read in full by New Naratif, the three men allege that when Meliana opened her front door that night, she screamed insults at them.
That mosque is making me deaf. My ears hurt. Every day it’s noisy. Noisy in the morning, noisy in the afternoon, noisy at night, it’s impossible for me to be calm, it reads.
Yet no recorded evidence of these words coming out of Meliana’s mouth was submitted in court.
Marpaung, Dailami and Rifa’I’s statement also admits that Meliana’s husband had tried to apologise, something that her family says is true. Sensing that the mob could turn violent, Meliana retreated into her home as Atui ran across the street to the mosque. “I said, ‘If there’s been a misunderstanding here then we apologise,’” he tells New Naratif.
But the crowd was unmoved. “You don’t belong here,” a voice bellowed, “this isn’t Singapore.”
As the crowd continued to swell, the local area chief arrived on the scene. Word had spread of an altercation at Meliana’s house. For her own protection, he said, she needed to go to his office. As she left the house, Meliana saw that her front gate had been ripped off its hinges. “I haven’t done anything wrong, I never asked for the call to prayer to be stopped,” she pleaded with the crowd.
“I haven’t done anything wrong, I never asked for the call to prayer to be stopped”
Meliana also says that, as they made their way to the office, several people spat in her husband’s face and tried to beat him up. Fearful of the escalating violence, the authorities moved Meliana and Atui to a district police station and then to Tanjung Balai Police Headquarters. According to Meliana, a district police chief told her that, “If you were a man, I would punch you in the face.”
Then it got even worse.
Once at Tanjung Balai Police Headquarters, Meliana received a call from her youngest son (15), who was still at home with his 17-year-old older sister. The crowd had failed to disperse and was pelting the house with rocks and bottles. In an effort to smoke the children out, they set fire to the front lawn. The children could hear people screaming at them to show their faces.
Meliana became hysterical. Fearful that her two youngest children would die in the blaze, she begged the police to go back to the house and help them. “Please save my children, they’re trapped inside,” she said.
The police refused.
The two children only managed to escape when a local Muslim becak (pedicab) driver, who often drove Meliana around the city, helped them scramble barefoot over the back wall of the house. “No one cared about them,” she says. “Only the becak driver was brave enough to save my children.”
Meliana stayed at the police headquarters for 22 days; the authorities were concerned she’d be lynched if she went home. She wasn’t charged with any crime. She eventually returned home briefly to collect her belongings before the family moved to Medan to start afresh.
Then, on 30 May 2018, almost two years later, Meliana was summoned to a meeting with police back in Tanjung Balai and formally arrested.
In the two-year period that followed her original comment, while Meliana tried to build a new life in Medan, other forces had been at work to ensure that she went to prison. In 2017, the North Sumatra chapter of one of Indonesia’s largest Muslim organisations, Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI), issued a fatwa (a non-legally binding pronouncement on Islamic law) against her. Other high-profile Muslim organisations, including Front Umat Islam (FUI), also continualy pressured the police to follow up on the case.
Crucially, in order for an individual to be charged under Pasal 156A in Indonesia, someone needs to formally state that they believe blasphemy has been committed. In Meliana’s case, this was Marpaung, Dailami and Rifa’I, and the written statement they’d provided six months after they’d gone to her house in July 2016.
But the three men’s statement also goes on to say that Meliana and Atui both came to the mosque that night to discuss the situation and try to work out some kind of “peaceful solution”. The talks were only cut short because the mob was growing in size and all parties were worried that the situation would escalate and get out of hand.
The document then ends with Marpaung, Dailami and Rifa’I saying that they conclude that Meliana committed blasphemy, based not on the comments she’d originally made to Kasini, but on the words she shouted at them in front of her house. The statement doesn’t explain why they’d offered her the chance to come to the mosque for mediation or why they hadn’t given her the opportunity to continue the discussion at Masjid Al Ma’shum—which only broke down through no fault of her own.
Meiliana’s trial took place from June to August 2018, following which she was handed her 18-month sentence for blasphemy.
A controversial law
The verdict provoked widespread outrage from human rights groups and on social media because, on paper at least, it looked as if Meliana should have walked free.
In order to understand what went wrong, we need to look at both Indonesian jurisprudence and the blasphemy law itself.
Contrary to popular belief, the Indonesian legal system doesn’t presume guilt before innocence. Indonesian jurisprudence has its roots in the Dutch legal system (which in turn is influenced by French law), and follows the European model of placing the burden of proof on the prosecution. This is upheld by the Judicial Power Act, the Human Rights Act and, most crucially, by Article 66 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which stipulates that the prosecutor bears the burden of proof in a criminal case.
As such, it should have been up to the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Meliana had committed blasphemy in accordance with the law. But the amount of public attention and pressure that follows many blasphemy cases in Indonesia has often led to things working out very differently.
“If a judge had freed Meliana, then they could have faced reprisals from the local community. Even worse, they too could have been accused of being a blasphemer”
“It was a weak decision by the judge who was just looking to keep himself safe,” says Ranto Sibarani, Meliana’s lawyer, of the verdict. “If we had a jury system in Indonesia, it would make the legal system fair and transparent. This case was strongly influenced by social pressure. If a judge had freed Meliana, then they could have faced reprisals from the local community,” he explains. “Even worse, they too could have been accused of being a blasphemer.”
Indonesia’s blasphemy law was first signed into force in 1965, during the era of the country’s first president Sukarno. While its function was very different from what it is today, it was no less controversial. Back then, the blasphemy law was meant “to stem the recognition of indigenous beliefs” across the archipelago and focus the population on adhering to the (then) five official state religions.
At the time, the law prompted an outcry for prohibiting indigenous Indonesian beliefs like animism while legitimising religions, such as Christianity, which had been brought to Indonesia by its former colonisers. Fast forward to the present, and the blasphemy law is now being used against the very same official religions that it had been created to protect.
Blasphemy is now a toxic issue in Indonesia—and the numbers speak for themselves. In the first four decades after it was created, the law was hardly ever invoked. But under former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, 125 people were convicted and a further 23 under the current President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo.
By rights, Indonesian law should protect the accused until the prosecution has successfully proven their case. Instead, blasphemy cases often turn into trial by the masses, drawn along racial and religious lines.
Race riots and death threats
Meliana’s alleged comments prompted some of the worst race-related violence since anti-Chinese riots swept the country in 1998.
11 Buddhist temples were set ablaze in Tanjung Balai, where Buddhists number around 11,000 out of 185,000 residents. The perpetrators were handed sentences of between one to four months in prison. None were charged with blasphemy despite having desecrated official houses of worship.
Both the mob violence and Meliana’s conviction prompted continued criticism of Pasal 156A, which in recent years has increasingly been weaponised to target minority groups.
According to Sibarani, “The blasphemy law needs to be abolished immediately because it’s too easily abused. Meliana is the victim of an opaque law and was convicted of a crime that was never proven in court. Yet the police have never taken action against the people who spread this hoax online and misrepresented her comments on social media.”
For his part in this case, Sibarani was also sucked into the vortex of hatred that it created. As a result of agreeing to represent Meliana, he received death threats throughout the trial and tells New Naratif that the court was packed with hardline vigilantes from FUI who sought to intimidate him and his legal team.
Sibarani says that, while in court, he’d heard one vigilante ask, “If I smash in the head of that lawyer, how long would I get in jail?”
“The problem is that radical ideology is becoming normalised in the Indonesian legal system,” Sibarani tells New Naratif. “Radical groups can shout threats in court with impunity. When there is a blasphemy case hardline groups will immediately mobilise. These groups have the sole function of trying to intimidate courts in Indonesia and tamper with the legal process.”
In one video, seen by New Naratif, Sibarani is shown striding out of court while being closely followed by members of Indonesia’s FUI, who jeer at him and throw insults. Court attendants and police stand by passively as this unfolds. “Imagine if one of them had been carrying a knife,” Sibarani points out.
Now that her final appeal has been rejected, Meliana and her legal team continue to maintain her innocence and plan to file a judicial review.
But unless video or audio evidence of Meliana’s alleged comments surfaces, what was really said on the sleepy street of Jalan Karya in Tanjung Balai back in 2016 will probably forever remain a mystery.
Still, an 18-month custodial sentence seems like a harsh penalty for what has essentially been a “he said, she said” situation from the beginning. And in addition to the lack of hard evidence, other aspects of the case stretch the bounds of incredulity. After all, is it believable that a member of a minority group in Indonesia, knowing the potential for violent reprisals and faced with a baying mob of 50 people in front of her house, would make the statements Marpaung, Dailami and Rifa’I claim she’d made?
The questions don’t stop there.
Following the alleged altercation between Meliana, Marpaung, Dailami and Rifa’I outside her house that night, a number of videos of the confrontation were posted on social media. But they were quickly taken down, and no such video was ever presented in court. This is odd, especially considering that such footage could have answered many of the case’s outstanding questions. Instead, the videos have vanished from the Internet.
There are other arguments against Meliana’s conviction. Some say that, even if she had uttered the words she’s been accused of, they don’t constitute blasphemy. After all, her comments (either her version, or those of others) focused on volume of the mosque speakers, rather than on Islam itself. Others argue that the blasphemy law is in itself an outdated concept that inhibits free speech, and should therefore be revoked, regardless of what was said that day in Tanjung Balai.
The “logic” behind Meliana’s conviction implies that anyone in Indonesia can now file a statement claiming that someone committed blasphemy without having to provide irrefutable evidence
On social media, Meliana has often been accused of being “arrogant” for making a comment about a mosque in a country where 87% of the population is Muslim. Even those who sympathise with her may wonder why she even broached the topic of the volume of the speakers at Masjid Al Ma’shum in the first place.
Such matters will continue to be debated on social media threads, but Meliana’s case has set an alarming precedent. Put simply, the “logic” behind her conviction implies that anyone in Indonesia—like Marpaung, Dailami and Rifa’I—can now file a statement claiming that someone committed blasphemy without having to provide irrefutable evidence of the comments made.
One might expect Meliana to feel bitter about all that’s happened, but she says that she attends both Muslim and Christian events in prison and has been treated well by everyone.
New Naratif asks if there’s anything else she’d like to say about what happened to her. She begins to speak, but is interrupted by a voice over the prison’s loudspeaker, telling the inmates that visiting time is over.
Then the words come tumbling out from a woman whose children were almost torched inside their home; whose husband was spat upon; whose lawyer was threatened with murder; and who’s now spent almost a year in prison as the latest casualty of Pasal 156A.
“I did not receive justice,” she says as she scrambles to gather her things. “But race and religion shouldn’t be used to create divisions between us.”
“This wasn’t fair, but we need to stay united.”
Then she’s gone, and the visitor’s hall at Tanjung Gusta Women’s Prison is empty.
There’s no more noise.
Aisyah Llewellyn is a British freelance writer based in Medan, Indonesia, and New Naratif's Deputy Editor. She is a former diplomat and writes primarily about Indonesian politics, culture, travel and food. Reach her at email@example.com.