A jailed Indonesian Christian who was sentenced to three years imprisonment in June 2003, could be released on parole as early as November 2004, sources said yesterday. The Ministry of Justice notified the Reverend Rinaldy Damanik that his release was in process.
“We are delighted with this positive news, and we join with Rev Damanik and his supporters in their cautious optimism. He is a key supporter of the peace and reconciliation process and it’s vital he’s allowed to continue his work and have his name cleared,” said Mervyn Thomas, Chief Executive of UK-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW).
After receiving the news, Damanik, 45, told CSW that he feels his possible early release is a miracle and a result of the prayers of so many people around the world.
Damanik, prior to his arrest, was head of the Crisis Center of Central Sulawesi in Indonesia and was responsible for informing the international community of the attacks and human rights violations in the area. An outspoken critic of the apparent lack of commitment by the police and government authorities to take measures aimed at ending the violence between Christians and Muslims, Damanik had also been a key supporter of the reconciliation process. As such, he was viewed as a hindrance to the activities of the Islamist militants largely held to be responsible for the sectarian violence in Maluku and Sulawesi.
On August 17, 2002, police in Peleru in Sulawesi stopped him while attempting to evacuate to safety Christians under attack from militants.
The police allege they seized 14 weapons and ammunition from his car, but he was not arrested at the time nor informed of such a discovery.
A warrant for his arrest was issued on August 22, and he was arrested on September 9, 2002 in Jakarta. He was charged with violation of a law prohibiting the owning and controlling weapons or ammunition without permission.
CSW reported that his arrest and trial had been plagued with human rights violations. Many of the testimonies from the police and military witnesses were contradictory and eyewitnesses admitted to being intimidated and abused, CSW said. Some witnesses could not even agree on the type of vehicle Damanik was allegedly traveling in.
In June 2003 he was sentenced to three years imprisonment, which Damanik’s supporters are convinced was done in a bid to silence him and to placate extremists.
Since then, Damanik has maintained his innocence, but appeals to both the High Court and the Supreme Court were unsuccessful. Damanik's fortunes began to change, however, when a leading Muslim cleric, Idrus Al Habsy, became good friends with the imprisoned pastor. Idrus, widely respected in Central Sulawesi, had been an advocate for Damanik and signed a written guarantee to the Minister of Justice and Human Rights declaring him to be a "man of good character" who "should be allowed to go free." The character reference, which Idrus signed just before he died, proved to be instrumental in securing Damanik’s early release. Damanik said he was extremely grateful for the efforts of the respected Muslim cleric.
Damanik received the news of his planned release with subdued excitement, aware that there is a "slim chance that his hopes may be dashed by the legal system."
The pastor has already had permission to leave the prison on day visits but has chosen not to exercise this option during the volatile Presidential election time.
Meanwhile, CSW, which has worked closely with Muslims and Christians to promote the peace process, has asked supporters to pray for Damanik’s release.