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The 'worst curse'

Indonesia | Human-rights advocates cry foul as minority Christians are executed

Issue: "Autumn books," Oct. 7, 2006

Six years ago a quasi-Christian militia in Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, kidnapped police intelligence officer Irwanto Hasan and four of his friends. The "Red Group" mutilated the four and would have killed Hasan but for one man's intervention. That man, Fabianus Tibo, rescued and shuttled him to safety in a nearby village. "This person loved to help people," Hasan said in court testimony four years ago.

Such testimony might have helped save the 60-year-old Tibo and two other Roman Catholic men from execution Sept. 22, but the judge in their trial never admitted it for consideration. After five years in prison, Tibo, Marinus Riwu, 48, and Dominggus da Silva, 42, went before a firing squad. Their crime, officially, was leading attacks against Muslims in 2000, including one by gun and machete on an Islamic school where scores of men were hiding.

The attacks happened in Poso district when sectarian violence involving Muslims and Christians flared between 1998 and 2002 in Central Sulawesi, killing about 1,000 altogether. Religious freedom observers note, however, that authorities did little to protect Christians at the time, forcing many to defend their families and property against Muslim attackers. And since 2002, even as the military installed a local base and beefed up forces, terrorist strikes have continued. They include attacks on a Christian marketplace and churches. Most gruesome was last year's beheading of three teenage girls as they walked to school ("Beyond terror," Nov. 12, 2005).

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According to the Jubilee Campaign, which has monitored and translated evidence of the men's defense, the three men went to evacuate a Catholic orphanage at Poso's St. Theresia Church complex in May 2000. They stayed overnight, to allow the children to finish their final exams. Red Group militiamen, considered occultist by other Christians, were meanwhile launching revenge attacks on Muslims in the area.

Soon some militiamen appeared at the orphanage, encountering Tibo and his two friends. Fearing that Muslims were pursuing the militia, Tibo rounded the children into a nearby forest for safety. The encounter was enough to cause authorities to consider the Poso 3 "masterminds" of local violence.

"The bottom line is, they were not guilty of what they were convicted of-and that's not just," said Ann Buwalda, Jubilee Campaign director. Even local moderate Muslim leaders, including human-rights advocates, said the Poso 3 did not deserve to die.

From the beginning, several facts did not add up, according to Kie Eng, Jubilee Campaign country coordinator for Indonesia. In 2001, authorities asked the three to give eyewitness testimony at a police station about events the previous year. When they arrived, police arrested them as suspects. The court dismissed testimony from several witnesses, including Hasan's character testimony. And when the district police chief opposed the death penalty-leading to three stays of execution-he was replaced.

Against this backdrop, local Christians deeply suspect government interference, and thousands rioted in the region last week. In Maumere, Flores Island, da Silva's birthplace, mobs vandalized government buildings, while others in Poso torched cars and police posts. But locals note that the Christians directed their anger against the Indonesian government, not local Muslims.

Both groups suspect a deeper official conspiracy is afoot to divide and conquer and win control of Central Sulawesi's mineral resources, with Christian/Muslim violence serving as a pretext for exerting more authority. Historically, because official corruption runs deep, Indonesians in a local crisis always question how their officials and religious leaders collaborate with the military and Jakarta politicians.

Vice President Yusuf Kalla reportedly already has economic interests in Sulawesi, with locals saying his son wants to build a resort on Lake Poso. The military also has to raise 80 percent of its funds wherever it operates, giving it incentives to ogle rich areas.

"In my analysis, Tibo and friends were executed in order to provoke a situation and create another force for conflict," Eng told WORLD. "It's not about Muslims against Christians."

For the Poso 3, release was always a dim hope. Minorities in Indonesia find such serious charges their "worst curse" because they are hard to refute, Eng said. The three men described themselves as poor "peasants"-two were farmers and one an auto mechanic. Tibo could not read or write. When Eng met Tibo's wife about two years ago, she was already in despair, knowing this end would come.

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