The trials of 13 men accused of attacking two Batak Christian Protestant Church leaders in September finally began at the Bekasi District Court on Wednesday.
The defendants — including Murhali Barda, the suspended leader of the Islamic Defenders Front’s (FPI) Bekasi chapter — allegedly assaulted Asia Sihombing and Rev. Luspida Simandjuntak, both leaders of the church, also known as HKBP.
The victims were on their way to a service on Sept. 12 in Pondok Timur Indah when a group of men accosted them. Asia was stabbed and Luspida was beaten with a stick.
On Wednesday, the defendants were split into five groups and were tried separately.
They face a variety of charges, including committing violence against others, unpleasant conduct and provocation. These constitute violations to Articles 170, 335 and 160 of the Criminal Code, respectively.
More than 100 police officers stood guard during the court proceedings, as dozens of members from the FPI demanded the immediate release of Murhali.
At a hearing presided by Judge Wasdi Permana on Wednesday, prosecutor Priorenta said Murhali had “provoked the attack against Asia and Luspida.”
“He is facing up to seven years in jail,” Priorenta said, adding that the Christian group had faced numerous protests in the area and were barred from entering their church.
The September attack occurred as the church leaders were heading to a vacant lot in Ciketing, where the congregation was forced to hold services after officials sealed off their church in Pondok Timur Indah.
The church was first closed in June after Islamic hard-liners objected to it being there. The city has tried to reach a compromise, offering the congregation two plots of land on which to build a church.
Following the attack and subsequent mass demonstrations by hard-line Islamic groups, Luspida was transferred to a different branch of the HKBP. He was replaced by Rev. Peterson Purba.
Peterson said the defendants may have been ordered to attack the church elders, among other cases of harassment and intimidation in recent years.
“We believe that most of the defendants did not really know what they were doing,” he said. “They must have been paid or rewarded by an individual or an interested party to attack us continually. There is someone out there who is very unhappy with our presence in the area.”
“Religion cannot be used as an excuse to justify attacks,” Peterson added.
Police in Bekasi have been criticized for failing to arrest more members of the FPI, which many believe was responsible not only for the Sept. 12 assault, but also for previous threats against the HKBP.
Sr. Comr. Boy Rafli Amar, spokesman for the National Police, had earlier said authorities believed September’s attack was premeditated and was instigated by Murhali.
However, Shalih Manggara Sitompul, Murhali’s lawyer, insisted on his client’s innocence.
“We will prove that the 13 defendants have done nothing wrong,” Shalih said, adding that the indictment was “too vague.”
“We also hope that judge Wasdi will allow Murhali to be placed under the city’s custody instead of being detained by prosecutors,” Shalih added.
Munarman, the FPI’s spokesman and legal counsel, said the bigger issue in the case was not religious intolerance but the HKBP’s illegal status.
“This is not about taking other people’s right to have freedom of beliefs,” he said. “This is about the HKBP running an illegal church at the field in Ciketing and Pondok Timur Indah as well as in [other parts of] Bekasi.”
Munarman said the congregation’s activities caused traffic jams, noise pollution and the accumulation of garbage, especially after Sunday services.
The court hearings were adjourned until Monday.