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New rules for civic groups in Indonesia draw activist ire

Critics accuse Widodo administration of 'authoritarian' bent

JAKARTA -- New rules seen as aimed at clamping down on Islamist groups in Indonesia are drawing strong opposition from rights activists and some Muslim organizations, some of whom accuse the government of Joko Widodo of authoritarian tendencies.

The president on Monday signed a decree prohibiting organizations from advocating ideologies that run counter to Pancasila -- Indonesia's founding principle, which is based on democracy and pluralism.

The new regulation, called a perppu, revises a 2013 law on mass organizations. The government has bypassed lengthy parliamentary procedures to revise the law, arguing that the need to do so is urgent. The decree may be reviewed by lawmakers later.

The new regulation removes an article in the 2013 law that requires judicial proceedings before an organization can be disbanded. It also threatens life in prison for members of outlawed groups, including those "conducting hostile acts against [other] ethnicities, religions, races or groups."

The rules were issued amid rising concern over widening sectarian divisions and the growing influence of Islamists in the world's most populous Muslim nation, particularly in the wake of the heated Jakarta gubernatorial election earlier this year.

False alarm?  

But civil rights activists are unimpressed. One, Kontras, said it "does not see the urgency" behind the decree and accused the Widodo administration of being "insecure and reactive." It also said the rules are subject to multiple interpretations and therefore abuse.

"Nobody said the state cannot disband an organization, but this way of disbanding without going through a legal mechanism is authoritarian," said Kontras' head of advocacy, Putri Kanesia.

The group that is likely to fall afoul of the new regulations first is Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, a local unit of transnational Muslim group Hizbut Tahrir. Despite no record of violence and its small number of followers in Indonesia, the government had been seeking to disband HTI following its participation in two large rallies last year against Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the former governor of Jakarta and a key Widodo ally. Purnama, an ethnic Chinese Christian, was convicted of blaspheming Islam and sentenced to two years in prison in May.

Officials have accused HTI of seeking to establish a transnational Islamic caliphate, which they say violates Pancasila and Indonesia's constitution. HTI on Wednesday said it will challenge the new rules at the Constitutional Court.

"We thought the judicial mechanism in the old law is fair enough. The government could [make] any accusations, but a mass organization could defend itself," HTI spokesman Ismail Yusanto said. "But now the judicial procedures have been removed. We think this perppu is giving birth to a dictatorial, repressive and authoritarian regime."

Other HTI members have accused the Widodo government of being anti-Islamic.

Chief Security Minister Wiranto, announcing the new rules, said they were "not meant to discredit Muslim groups." "The government hopes that the public can remain calm and accept this perppu with clear consideration," said Wiranto, a former general. "This perppu is not meant to limit freedom [to establish] mass organizations, not meant to oppress - it is merely to preserve the unity and existence of the nation."

Indonesia's largest Muslim organizations known for their moderate teachings of Islam, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, took different stances on the new rules

The head of NU's legal division, Robikin Emhas, praised the government's move as "smart." "Like cancer, [radical organizations] spread quickly and therefore require precise and quick responses, including through legal approaches. The existing mass organization law is not well-equipped to tackle this," he said.

Muhammadiyah, however, called the government's move a "threat to democracy." "As long as democracy is unable to give birth to democratic, strong, clean and serving leaders, aspirations to establish a caliphate will continue to grow," Muhammadiyah Secretary Abdul Mu'ti said.

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