Early Release for Indonesian Pastor

Monday, October 4, 2004

Rinaldy Damanik to be released in November.

by Sarah Page

DUBLIN, October 4, 2004 (Compass) -- On Saturday, September 25, Rev. Damanik -- an Indonesian pastor imprisoned under what many believe were false charges -- celebrated his 45th birthday.

But on Monday, September 27, he had far greater cause for celebration. Prison authorities announced this week that Damanik would be released in November 2004 -- almost a year earlier than his original release date of September 2005.

Mona Saroinsong, the coordinator of the Protestant church’s Crisis Center in Sulawesi and a close supporter of Damanik, hinted on Friday, September 24, that changes were in the air. News of the early release came as a joyful surprise to friends, family and supporters who had campaigned tirelessly on Damanik’s behalf.

Damanik, a prominent figure in peace negotiations between warring Muslim and Christian communities on the island of Sulawesi, was convicted on charges of “illegal weapons possession” in June 2003. The charge dated back to an incident on August 17, 2002, when his relief convoy -- returning from a mission to assist refugees on both sides of the conflict -- was stopped by police.

Members of the convoy were taken to a nearby building for questioning while their cars were searched. Days later, police claimed to have found firearms and ammunition in the vehicle.

Damanik was detained by police in September 2002, and the court case finally opened in February 2003. Several witnesses for the prosecution admitted in court that police had pressured them into giving false testimony. Judge Somanada admitted there were irregularities in court proceedings but sentenced Damanik to three years in prison.

Taking into account the time already spent in police custody, his sentence was due to end in September 2005.

Sources in Indonesia say a leading Muslim cleric, Idrus R. al Habsy, befriended the imprisoned pastor after the cleric’s son Husen met Damanik in prison. When Idrus learned how Damanik was working for peace in Poso, an area wracked by conflict and bloodshed since 1998, the elderly cleric became a staunch advocate for Damanik’s release.

On August 20, an ailing Idrus signed a written guarantee directed to the Minister of Justice and Human Rights declaring Damanik to be a “man of good character” who “should be allowed to go free.” It is believed the document helped pave the way for Damanik’s early parole.

On August 23, Idrus R. al Habsy passed away from his illness.

In late July, Compass spoke with Rev. Damanik at the Maesa Detention Center in Palu through an interpreter, who noted that Damanik was gaunt, red-eyed and obviously still suffering the effects of a serious kidney problem that led to his hospitalization in May 2004.

However, Damanik appeared to be in good spirits as he described his prison experience and commented on religious violence in North and Central Sulawesi.

“I had visited people in the prison before,” Damanik said, “but I never thought I would actually be a prisoner here!”

In an ironic twist, 15 men who were arrested for killing 13 Christians and wounding several more in October 2003 occupied other cells at the prison. Damanik said he had gained real insight into the religious tensions in Sulawesi through conversations with the men.

The prison also held two Laskar Jihad fighters and five members of Jemaah Islamiyah, both Islamic terrorist organizations.

“I mingle with them and they call me ‘big brother,’” said Damanik. “Sometimes they even ask me to pray for them.

“My greatest desire is to go back and work with the Crisis Center (of the Protestant Church in Central Sulawesi) where I worked previously,” said Damanik when asked about the hardest thing he faced in prison. “Why should I be here and not with all my co-workers, helping those who are suffering?”

Violent Shootings Target Christians

Damanik’s release may not be the end of the story. Some friends have expressed fears for Damanik’s safety. Several violent shooting incidents have occurred this year on the island of Sulawesi; the majority of the victims were Christians.

The most recent incident occurred on July 18 at Effata church in Palu, resulting in the death of Rev. Susianty Tinulele, a 26-year-old minister, and serious injuries to 17-year-old Desrianti Tengkede.

Tinulele had visited Damanik in prison just two days before the shooting. However, the senior pastor at Effata church told Compass that she was not necessarily the specific target of the marksmen, since she was a visiting speaker and not a regular member of the church. It was simply a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

On other occasions, marksmen have specifically targeted Christian ministers or professionals, such as Ferry Silalahi, a lawyer who had prosecuted Muslim militants in high profile court cases, and defended Damanik in court. Silalahi was shot and killed as he emerged from a church meeting on May 25, 2004.

Commenting on the response Christians should have to the violence, Damanik said the church needed to pray and bless their enemies. However, “We also need to show we are not cowards in facing this injustice. I’m not saying we should express our anger in revenge, but we need to speak the truth in love.”