Executions spark violent protests in Indonesia

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The Independent Online

Thousands of Christians have been involved in violent protests in Indonesia in demonstrations against the execution of three Christian militants in the country's Sulawesi province.

The protesters torched cars, looted Muslim shops and even set prisoners free from jail.

Riots erupted shortly after the execution by firing squad of Fabianus Tibo, Marianus Riwu and Dominggus Silva in the early hours of yesterday morning in the provincial capital of Palu.

On the largely Catholic island of Flores to the south of Sulawesi, youths wielding machetes chanted slogans and threatened residents before police dispersed them with warning shots. In Atambua, West Timor, where Silva came from, crowds broke into the local jail and freed about 200 prisoners.

The three executed men were found guilty of masterminding an attack on an Islamic boarding school in 2000 in the town of Poso that left 70 Muslims dead, but their conviction has been a consistent sore point between Christians and Muslims in a region known for its inter-religious violence.

Christian groups in Indonesia have accused the government of using the men as scapegoats to placate the country's majority Muslim population.Three Muslims militants, sentenced to death for their role in the Bali bombings in 2002, are making their last appeal.

Human rights groups expressed concerns over Tibo, Riwu and Silva's trial in 2001, arguing that a number of defence testimonies, including those of the defendants, were not allowed.

Kate Allen, of Amnesty International, condemned the Indonesian government's decision to carry out the death sentence. "The executions of these men are a backwards step," she said. "Such state-sanctioned killing is all the more unacceptable where there have been doubts about the fairness of the trial."

Appealing for calm, Vice-President Jusuf Kalla rejected suggestions that the executions were religiously or politically motivated. "We are concerned that the public misunderstood," he told reporters. "The case is not a religious or ethnic issue but simply a legal one."

Although Indonesia is the world's most populous Islamic nation, at least 15 per cent of the country's 245 million inhabitants are not Muslims and violence between religious communities is common.

Rioting first broke out in Sulawesi in 1998 following a drunken brawl between Christian and Muslim gangs. This quickly descended into a four years of conflict as militants from the Islamic group Laskar Jihad fought the local Christian militia known as the Red Force. The violence between the two sides led to more than 1,000 deaths before a peace deal was signed in 2002.

In the three years since the ceasefire, however, local rights groups have recorded more than 120 violations of the peace deal.

The execution of the three men had initially been postponed in August after appeals from the Pope and Christian leaders in Sulawesi, who warned their deaths might lead to a return to sectarian violence.

However, not all protests against the killings were violent. In Palu, 1,000 mourners packed into the local church for a vigil. During the ceremony, Tibo's son told the crowd: "My father begged us not to be angry, not to seek revenge. He asked to forgive those who did this to him."