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Execution of 3 Christian militants in Poso fuels religious tensions

Updated On: Sep 26, 2006

Fabianus Tibo, Marianus Riwu and Dominggus Silva – known as the Poso 3 – went before a firing squad just south of Central Sulawesi's provincial capital Palu on Friday (September 22), prompting violent protest in the region.

The Poso 3 had been sentenced to death in 2001 for leading a Christian militia that launched a series of attacks in Central Sulawesi in May 2000, including a machete and gun assault on an Islamic school that killed at least 70 people.

The massacre was one of the bloodiest of the clash between Christians and Muslims – matching each other in population size in Central Sulawesi – from 1998 to 2002, leaving more than 1,000 people from both communities dead and tens of thousands homeless. Even though both parties have signed a peace accord in late 2001, sporadic killings continued.

According to witnesses, the execution brought thousands of protesters to the streets, as the bodies of Tibo and Riwu were flown to their home town while Silva was buried in Palu. In Silva's hometown of Atambua in West Timor, thousands of Christians raided offices, houses, and destroyed a local prison main-gate in the town Atambua, allowing around 200 inmates to escape. In the Poso area where many clashes have occurred in recent years, hundreds of protesters rallied by burning tyres on the street and throwing rocks at anti-riot policemen. But some of the violence was quelled the following day with the deployment of thousands of security forces to guard the public areas.

The trio’s sentencing was supposed to be carried out in August this year but they were postponed after demonstrations by thousands of Indonesians and an appeal from Pope Benedict XVI, who sent a letter to President SBY (although authorities attributed the delay to “technical reasons”).

The case has sparked debate about the role of religion in influencing the sentencing. For instance, defence lawyers claimed that only a handful of Muslims were convicted, and none of whom had received sentencing for more than 15 years in prison. Human rights workers have also claimed that the Poso 3 trial was a sham, and that while it was possible the trio took part in some of the bloodshed, they were not the masterminds.

The convicted men also maintained their innocence, and argued that prosecutors refused to investigate 16 other people including military, intelligence and government officials, implicated by one of the defendants as the masterminds of the conflict. Din Syamsuddin, chairman of second largest Muslim organization Muhammadiyah, called upon the public not to associate the execution with religion because it was a purely legal matter. Syamsuddin’s sentiment was backed by the government’s view, as Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda said that “the case was a pure enforcement of law. It has nothing to do with the questions of tolerance between Islam and other religions”.

Jacobus Mayongpadang from the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle however expressed disappointment towards the government stance, as he felt that the government “should be responsible and anticipate the possibility of unrest [rather than defer the task to local administrations]”.

The executions also incurred condemnation from the European Union. EU Justice and Home Affairs Commissioner Franco Frattini said that the Indonesian government's decision to carry out the death sentences was disappointing and added urgency to cross-cultural debate. “I wonder what would have happened in the Muslim world if it had been the other way around, if a capital execution had been carried out against Muslims by a Christian country,” Frattini told reporters.

Elsewhere, Amnesty International said it was “deeply disappointed that despite the debate on the death penalty that the case had sparked across Indonesia, the state went ahead and killed these three men.”

Sources:

Indonesian executions spark violent protest (Reuters/The Straits Times, 22 September 2006)

Violence flares after execution of Poso 3 (Jakarta Post, 23 September 2006)

EU protests executions, urges government to abolish death penalty (AP/Jakarta Post, 23 September 2006)

Home burials for two of executed Poso three (Antara, 24 September 2006)

Calm prevails after the executions of three death row convicts (Antara, 24 September 2006)

Execution of three Catholics 'matter of justice, not religion' (AP, 25 September 2006)