Indonesia jails activist under controversial anti-communist law

JAKARTA (Reuters) - An Indonesian activist has been jailed for 10 months under a controversial anti-communism law, his lawyer said on Wednesday, in the first such conviction since the fall of authoritarian leader Suharto two decades ago.

Many Indonesians remain suspicious of the Communist Party and its beliefs, even though it has been banned since 1965, and there is little evidence that sympathizers are active in the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation.

Environmentalist Heri Budiawan was accused of spreading communist ideology by displaying symbols like the hammer and sickle during a protest against a gold mining company in East Java province. The maximum penalty is 12 years in jail.

“Protesting is a constitutional right and the judge’s decision threatens democracy,” said Budiawan’s lawyer, Abdul Wachid Habibullah, adding there was no evidence his client had broken the law but he had not yet decided whether to appeal.

Rights activists said the ruling could revive the misuse of anti-communism laws that date back to Suharto’s repressive New Order regime.

“The conviction provides a legal pretext for communism or ‘red scares’ to be used by politicians to...increase their own legitimacy by scapegoating minorities or those accused of being communist,” said Usman Hamid, director of Amnesty International Indonesia.

Indonesia used to have the world’s second-largest communist party after China.

But it saw a brutal purge of suspected Communist Party members and sympathizers in 1965, when, according to historians, about 500,000 people were killed and a million jailed after then-general Suharto and the military took power following an abortive communist coup.

Last year, a meeting by human rights activists and victims of the 1965 purge was shut down after Islamists and nationalists rioted outside the venue.

Reporting by Jessica Damiana and Andrew Mangelsdorf; Writing by Kanupriya Kapoor; Editing by Clarence Fernandez