The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Friday, January 15, 2021



In February 2012 X Riyan and X Hadi were led into the Perth District Courtroom 7.1 by uniformed security guards.

From their curious titles it seemed the defendants were protected informants in an East Timor spy scandal so given codenames; the reality was more mundane.  Many Indonesians have only one name – a fact Australian bureaucracy can’t accept.  So both men were labelled X.

Riyan was 28.  Hadi said he was 14 and the beardless lad looked like a frightened early adolescent.  However the prosecution said he was an adult. 

We now know he wasn’t so Hadi is on the list of 122 claimants for compensation from the Federal government. They say they were sent to adult prisons when authorities should have known they were children.

The cases are listed for a management hearing in the Federal Court on 21 February.

Back in the Perth court nine years ago, Riyan and Hadi pleaded not guilty to the charge of unlawfully transporting aliens into Australia.  Facing them across the almost empty room (an Indonesian diplomat occasionally looked in) sat the jury of 12 Australian citizens. 

Hadi said in May 2010 he crewed a boat carrying coconuts from Java to Flores. Heading back they stopped at Probolinggo on East Java’s north coast.  The boat collected 54 Afghan men and headed to sea. On 3 June they were boarded by an Australian naval patrol boat.

Hadi says he didn’t get paid and hadn’t negotiated a salary. The prosecutor thought this incredible. Through an interpreter Hadi explained Indonesians don’t quibble and that he didn’t know where they were going.

There was no suggestion they were the Mr Bigs who’d recruited the passengers and hired the boat.

When sentencing Riyan and Hadi to the mandatory five-year minimum, Judge Richard Keen said jailing would ‘bring home the message’ that Australia treats people smuggling seriously.  

Now the message is heading in another direction:  Australia must treat those it arrests lawfully.

The lead plaintiff in next month’s Federal Court compensation action is Ali Yasmin  from the island of Lembata east of Flores. His story only came to light in 2010 when JP Colin Singer was on an official visit to Perth’s Hakea Prison.


The 1,225-bed jail is no place for the immature and vulnerable.  It’s for men remanded in custody or who’ve just been sentenced.  Every year around 7,000 murderers, thugs, paedophiles and thieves check in and out of the legal system’s terminal.


Under 18s must be held apart under the 1990 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Australia is a signatory.  So is Indonesia.


As I reported for Indonesia’s Strategic Review, a doctor told Singer there were kids in Hakea:  ‘I thought this impossible. I had great faith in the Australian justice system and believed it to be fair.


‘Then I saw them - they were Indonesians, pre-pubescent frightened children, certainly not men.’  Among the kids he spoke to was Yasmin who had no paperwork to prove his claim to be 14. ‘He was alone and clinging to a fence, clearly traumatized’.


It was fortuitous Singer was on visitor duty at the jail, and not just because he sounded the alert. He’s worked in the oil and gas industry in Indonesia since 1989, is married to an Indonesian, has a home in West Java and could communicate with the prisoners.


Singer claimed 60 juveniles were in WA’s adult jails. The government said there were none because they’d been confirmed as adults by the AFP using wrist X-rays.  They referenced a 1942 US bone atlas devised for Caucasians and with a four-year plus-or-minus margin of error. On these grounds it was decided Yasmin was 19. 

The Australian Human Rights Commission got involved and concluded Australia had breached international human rights law by giving ‘little weight to the rights of this cohort of young Indonesians’ as prosecutors and police faced pressure to ‘take people smuggling seriously’.

In 2013 TV journalist Hamish Macdonald was the first Australian to visit Yasmin’s family in Indonesia and see school records showing the teen had been born in 1996. The documents were faxed to the Indonesian Consul General in Perth.  They weren’t legally verified so weren’t presented as evidence. 


Had the papers been accepted by the court Yasmin would have been whisked out of the country. Instead he was convicted and sent to icy Albany, latitude 35 degrees. His island is just below the equator.


Yasmin was put to work in the laundry.  Under demands from the Australian Government, WA prison regulations were changed to prevent the Indonesians sending their meagre earnings back to their families. (State jails are used to house federal prisoners.)


Further petty malice showed an anxious electorate the government would stay hard and mean.  Some repatriated kids were allegedly dumped in Bali with no means of reaching their remote homes.  Only after the International Organisation for Migration got involved were escorts provided and fares back to the villages.


The doubts about ages eventually got too loud to ignore. Yasmin and 14 others were released ‘on licence’ in 2012.  Five years later the WA Court of Criminal Appeal quashed Yasmin’s sentence. 


The judges wrote they were ‘satisfied that a miscarriage of justice … has occurred.  If the appellant was aged under 18 years when he allegedly committed the offence, the mandatory minimum penalty … for an adult, did not apply to him.


Imagine the outrage if Aussie kids had suffered the same fate in Indonesia.  In 2011 the then Prime Minister Julia Gillard got involved in the case of a boy arrested in Bali on alleged drug charges. He was briefly detained then repatriated after a furious media campaign.

The average time spent in detention by the Indonesian kids was 31.6 months.  A wrong had eventually been recognised but not righted.  Despite all the current legal busyness there’s no certainty the Indonesians will be recompensed for their misery, fear and lost years.


Yasmin is now 25, married and has a daughter.  He speaks confidently on the phone in excellent English learned in prison and said he bears no animosity - except towards the defence lawyers who didn’t tell the court they had papers confirming he was a child.


‘Yasmin is an Indonesian hero,’ Singer told this writer last year.  “He helped the others settle in.  He calmed things down in jail and acted as an interpreter.  He’s had a horrendous time but his resilience has been spectacular.


“In all this I found most prison staff to be compassionate.  My criticism is for the bureaucrats, politicians and lawyers who turned away from their responsibilities and ignored the rights of children.’


The Guardian has reported the Australian government rejecting most of the plaintiffs’ allegations as ‘scandalous and embarrassing’, and claims of alleged negligence are to circumvent time limitations on the court process.

 First published in Pearls and Irritations, 15 January 2021:

Tuesday, January 05, 2021



                          Creating victims, fuelling hate

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, a leader prone to blunders (he initially took the Trump no-worries approach to Covid-19 now ravaging the Republic), may have made another serious error.  He’s banned a Muslim organisation that’s become the loudest and most militant critic of his government.

By making it illegal to belong to the Front Pembela Islam (FPI – Islamic Defenders’ Front} and join its activities has given the shambolic wackadoos the chance to find common purpose and gain credibility.

If the democratically elected government is so frightened of a rabble with an estimated 200,000 followers that it needs to banish it into the shadows to brew hate, then it seems Widodo is running scared.

Instead of using a prominent Muslim cleric to publicly confront the FPI and demolish its vile teachings with better interpretations of Islam, the government has chosen to strike using the secular mallet of the law. 

The person best qualified to challenge the FPI is vice president Ma’ruf Amin.  The high-standing Islamic scholar was picked as Widodo’s running mate in the 2019 election to offset the scuttlebutt that his boss isn’t a fair dinkum Muslim.  Instead he’s said to be a Javanese Abangan, a follower of a milder, more accepting form of the faith recognising local pre-Islamic beliefs.

However Amin, 77, has so far used his office more as a sinecure than a platform to disabuse the radicals’ line that the administration has lost its moral compass by, among other sins, bedding Chinese business.

As reported in this column, the FPI was formed late last century– allegedly with the help of the military - after the fall of the Republic’s strongman president, General Soeharto.  During his 32-year authoritarian rule any spark of religious militancy was crushed by army boots.


Some leaders fled to the Middle East or Malaysia where they covertly stayed in touch with supporters plotting the introduction of Sharia (Islamic) law.  In the chaos following the 1998 economic crisis, student-led riots against the corrupt regime and resignation of Soeharto, the demagogues slipped back to their homeland and roused the rabble.

One of the most notorious returnees was cleric Abu Bakar Ba'asyir, leader of the militant Jemaah Islamiyah (JI - Islamic congregation).  Its gangs were responsible for the 2002 Bali nightclub bombing which killed 202, including 88 Australian holidaymakers.

Now 82, Ba’asyir remains in jail after being convicted of inciting violence and plotting terror. 

JI has been proscribed in Indonesia since 2008.  It’s one of 27 organisations forbidden in Australia.  According to Australian National Security: ‘JI remains a threat to the region.  JI continues to exist as a functional terrorist organisation and remains committed to its long-term strategy to overthrow the Indonesian Government and establish a pan-Islamic state in South-East Asia—through violence if necessary.’ 

The FPI is a separate swarm, but its younger leader Rizieq Shihab, 55, has filled the vacant post of hardline frothy-mouthed demagogue.  For the past three years he’s been in self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia, returning to Jakarta on 10 November to such riotous applause that roads to the international airport were closed for several hours.

Countries which outlaw ‘illegal’ (meaning unregistered) organisations – as Indonesia has with the FPI – justify their actions with slippery phrases like ‘disturb public order and national security.’

Indonesia’s new catch-all law lists ‘activities that were in violation of the law such as violence, sweeping (raids on homes and businesses), incitement and other matters.’  But the likelihood that the FPI hoons will not regroup under another name or give up because a law has been proclaimed is fanciful.

Writing in The Conversation academics Lee Jarvis from East Anglia Uni, and Tim Legrand from the ANU, claimed debarring is ‘more political symbolism than effective counter-terrorism.

 ‘This scepticism dovetails with the work of other researchers ... who doubt that contemporary terrorist groups are appropriate targets for listing because they tend not to exist as coherent organisations with a fixed identity and an identifiable membership.’


Amnesty International Indonesia Executive Director Usman Hamid said the law ‘has the potential to discriminate against and violate the right of association, and will further undermine civil freedoms in Indonesia.’


Banning may sometimes be necessary to control immovable extremists.  But it’s also the favourite tool of tyrannical governments and often used against mild critics whose only weapons are reason and facts.

The blacklisting follows the police killing six FPI members on a toll road near Jakarta last month, and then arresting Rizieq Shihab on charges of breaking Covid-19 lockdown rules by encouraging mass rallies.  The government has rejected calls by NGOs for an inquiry into the shootings.

Days later the police said they’d discovered a JI military-style training centre in Central Java.  Separately they arrested two JI leaders allegedly involved in the Bali bombing after 18 years on the run.  By now the populace was well prepared to accept a ban on the FPI.

Christmas in Indonesia sometimes excites zealots to try their hand at bomb-throwing.  This year targets were few as the coronavirus closed churches, though a building in Sigi, Central Sulawesi was torched.   Local families claimed it was their church where they gathered to pray; authorities countered it wasn’t a ‘house of worship’ but a ‘service post’.

The Indonesian Constitution is supposed to guarantee freedom of worship, though the legislature has decreed citizens must follow one of six approved religions: Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism.

There are scores of other ancient faiths which the government labels traditional practices.  Endy Bayuni, a senior editor at The Jakarta Post and executive director of the International Association of Religion Journalists wrote that minority faith communities have lived in constant fear of persecution this century.

‘The fate of the followers of Ahmadiyah (a messianic movement) and Shiism (the branch of Islam dominant in Iran, Bahrain and Iraq) illustrates Indonesia’s failings in protecting freedom of religion or belief for everyone. Thousands of their followers have been lingering in shelters, unable to go home, others are facing harassment.’

The peak non-government authority Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI – Islamic Scholars’ Council) has declared Ahmadiyah and Shiism ‘deviant’ giving the FPI mobs an excuse to attack.

In a Cabinet reshuffle at the end of December Widodo announced a new Minister for Religious Affairs.

Yaqut Cholil Qoumas is a former chairman of Ansor, the 800,000-strong youth wing of Nahdlatul Ulama, the country’s largest Islamic mass organization. Ansor’s militia wing Banser sometimes musters its green-uniformed gangs to protect churches. (The FPI militias wear white.)  

Banser weren’t always the good guys; in the mid 60s they helped massacre thousands of real or imagined Communists after the coup which brought Soeharto to power.

Qoumas promised he’d protect minorities but within a day he copped a blast from conservative Muslim leaders.  He then said there’d be no special treatment.

‘No one is really asking for special treatment,’ wrote Bayuni. ‘If only he (Qoumas) could protect all religions, particularly religious minorities, against harassment and outright persecution, which would be sufficient.

‘This is hardly a picture that Indonesia wants to convey to the world. The nation of 270 million people takes pride in its diversity of all kinds, from race, ethnicity and culture to tradition, language and religion.

‘Living up to the spirit of the state motto Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity) however has become more challenging now with the increasing use of religion as political identity that encourages religious intolerance.’

At his swearing-in Qoumas said he wanted to ‘turn religion into an inspiration, not an aspiration’.  With others bent on wrath, the minister will be praying for wisdom.

Update: The FPI has reportedly changed its name to Front Persatuan Islam (United Islam Front). The government has also announced terrorist leader Abu Bakar Ba'asyir will be released from jail on 8 January after completing his sentence.

First published in Pearls and Irritations, 5 January 2021: