Indonesian Catholics put to death by firing squad amid doubts of guilt

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PALU, Indonesia — Three Catholics accused of masterminding a 2000 riot between Muslims and Christians in Indonesia were executed by firing squad at an undisclosed location in the island nation's Central Sulawesi province Sept. 22, the Jakarta Post reported.

Government sources said Fabnianus Tibo, Dominggus da Silva and Marinus Riwu had admitted their roles in religious violence, but doubt has surfaced in both Christian and Muslim circles about their guilt. Even Indonesia's former president, Abdurrahman Wahid, called for a stay of execution the day before the death sentences were carried out, the newspaper reported.

Wahid said the executions were "against Islam," but that Attorney General Abdurrahman Saleh insisted on moving forward with the executions "because he doesn't understand religion."

"In hadis (Muslim tradition), if there is doubt, in this case if the prosecutor has any doubt, don't do it," Wahid said. "It's just that the attorney general did not pay attention to religion."

The men, called "Christian militants" by the paper, were the only individuals executed in a long-term conflict that ran from 1998 to 2002 between Muslims and Christians in the volatile Poso area of the Sulawesi province. Government sources previously cited the number of Muslim dead in the 2000 riot the men allegedly caused at near 1,000, but AsiaNews and the Jakarta Post put the number between 70 and 200.

In addition to claiming that Tibo, da Silva and Riwu did not organize the violence against Muslims, advocates for the men protested the fact that few Muslims were charged with any offenses during the fighting that took place between the two groups from '98-'02. More than 10,000 Christians in Indonesia died at the hands of Muslims during the conflict, according to International Christian Concern, a Christian human rights organization based in Washington, D.C.

Jeremy Sewell, a policy analyst with ICC, said "justice had once again been denied to Christians in Indonesia." He said the Catholics had been executed to placate Muslim anger over the death sentences handed down to three members of the al Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah who were involved in a terrorist bombing in Bali in October 2002.

"These men were sacrificed as scape-goats so that the Indonesian government could wash their hands and walk away from the Poso conflict of 1998 to 2003," Sewell said. "If Indonesia really wants to show the world they value truth, they should reopen the investigation into this conflict and find all those responsible for the violence."

Scott Flipse, East Asia director with the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, also said there needs to be an investigation of what happened in the area. Flipse said a number of groups, including Indonesian military officers and jihadists from Java, may have been involved in the violence.

"There needs to be some account of what happened and the truth needs to be brought out and justice served," Flipse said. "The search for accountability needs to be taken wherever it leads."

ICC lobbied for a postponement of the executions in order for the men to force a final appeal through the Indonesian courts. Lawyers for Tibo, da Silva and Riwu promised to hand over new evidence that would lead to the real masterminds of the violence, but that appeal was rejected by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

"I really see this as an attempt by the Indonesia government to show the world they are committed to justice without doing the hard work that justice requires," Sewell said.

In a final statement, made through family members, Tibo said he was praying that his family would be "able to provide for themselves and forgive me for not being with them all these years," AsiaNews reported. Riwu said he and the others were the victims of a "political plot" to cover the names of the men responsible for organizing the violence, which ICC contends were actually Muslim. "The law is against us," said da Silva. "For years we have tried to tell the truth but they silenced us."

The men originally had been scheduled for execution Aug. 12, but the Vatican, international human rights organizations, and the European Union protested the convictions, with ICC citing inequities in the Indonesian justice system between Muslims and Christians as one reason for the need of a new trial. Then-Attorney General Mohammad Yahya Sibe stayed the executions in August under international pressure, but he and the area police chief were both relieved of their duties after the decision.

The prisoners received last rites several days before the execution, but the government denied them a funeral mass at a Catholic church near Petobo Prison, Jimmy Tumbelaka, the men's parish priest, told AsiaNews. They also denied them a traditional Catholic funeral procession. According to the priest, the decision violates the nation's law which grants condemned prisoners the right to have their final wishes carried out.

Muslim violence against Christians has escalated in the past decade in the island nation, with little response from the authorities when Christians have been killed. During the Poso conflict, more than 1,000 churches and 80,000 Christian homes were burned. Targeted killings of Christians in the area have continued.

In 2005, three Christian school girls were beheaded as they walked to school. The girls' heads were placed on a church doorstep some distance away, indicating that the violence was religiously motivated. Sewell said the "investigation" of the deaths was a "perfect example of the government's unwillingness to deal with the problem of violence against Christians."

"After international attention was brought to the case about the murdered girls, six or seven men were arrested," Sewell said. "But when the attention died down, they were released. No one has been charged since then that we know of."