Criminalising the mentally ill: schizophrenic woman to face court for blasphemy

A woman sits outside Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta. In Bogor, a woman diagnosed with schizophrenia is facing trial on blasphemy charges for wearing shoes and bringing a dog into a mosque. Photo by Flickr user Rodrigo Filgueira

 

Indonesia’s notorious Blasphemy Law looks set to claim another victim. In late June, a viral video spread online showing a woman bringing her dog and wearing her shoes into the Al Munawaroh Mosque, in Sentul City, Bogor, West Java. In the video, the woman is seen arguing with worshippers. She can be heard saying that she is Catholic, and demanding to know about her ex-husband’s supposed plans to be married in the mosque later that day.

 

The local community, like many other Muslims online, were furious and demanded that she be punished for “insulting” Islam. Muslims remove their shoes before entering mosques, and most consider dogs to be impure.

 

As was widely reported at the time, the woman was detained by Bogor Police on 30 June and named a suspect for alleged blasphemy. Under Article 156a of the Criminal Code (KUHP) she could face up to five years in prison.

 

It has now been confirmed that the woman who brought the dog to the mosque, Suzethe Margaret (52), is schizophrenic. Police gathered significant video and witness evidence demonstrating that it was indeed Suzethe who brought the dog inside the mosque, but they were initially reluctant to process the case further because it was clear that she had mental health issues. Within about 4 hours of Suzethe’s initial arrest, police referred her to a psychiatric hospital for treatment while they investigated.

 

The Al Munawaroh Mosque board were not satisfied with this. They demanded that she face trial. In early September, the Bogor Prosecutor’s Office gave way, declaring that she would face trial at the Cibinong District Court. Two preliminary hearings have already taken place. At the last hearing, on 2 October, a police doctor testified that she was fit to face trial provided that she was taking her medication as directed. The panel of judges were satisfied with this response, and scheduled the next hearing for tomorrow, 9 October, during which the prosecution will present its witnesses.

Who is Suzethe Margaret?

Suzethe was born in 1967. She has four children with her husband, Firdaus, including one who has autism. According to Firdaus, when he and Suzethe married, she left her job at a bank in Jakarta, and she has not worked full time since. Suzethe has a long history of mental illness. Not long after they married, Firdaus recognised that she occasionally showed signs of unusual behaviour and took her to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist diagnosed Suzethe with schizophrenia and informed the family that she would need to undergo treatment for the rest of her life. Schizophrenia is a chronic mental health disorder that affects cognitive function, emotions and behaviour. It is generally considered one of the most severe forms of mental illness.

 

Suzethe’s husband told me that she has not always taken her medication consistently and her mental illness has seen her run into trouble with authorities several times. In March 2019, Suzethe was reported to Surabaya police for abusing a soup vendor. Suzethe reportedly believed that the soup vendor had arranged for the murder of a relative, leading to a scuffle where Suzethe damaged some of the soup vendor’s property. Recognising that she was mentally ill, Surabaya police decided not to progress with investigation.

 

Her local neighbourhood chief reported that she has also been involved with disputes with her neighbours. She once accidentally crashed her car into a neighbour’s car, breaking its windscreen, but then blamed the neighbour for the accident. Her children also reported that they were often hesitant to go out in public with her because of her unpredictable behaviour.

 

One evening, I went with Firdaus to visit Suzethe at the Marzuki Mahdi Psychiatric Hospital in Bogor. It had been two months since she was referred there after being named a suspect by the Bogor Police. “Usually I am guarded by two police officers, but for the past two days it seems like there hasn’t been any police guard,” Suzethe said. She was eventually released from hospital on 11 September, and is now back with her family.

 

Psychiatrist Dr Yongky, who diagnosed Suzethe at the hospital, confirmed her condition. “Suzethe suffers from schizophrenia, and I have given this clarification twice to investigators. I have also given them Suzethe’s medical records dating back to 2013. Schizophrenia cannot be cured… we can only treat the symptoms,” he said.

Why was she named a suspect in the first place?

The moment Suzethe was arrested by Bogor Police, her family stressed that she had a mental illness, and provided her medical records as evidence. Suzethe was also examined by the police doctor, who confirmed she had a mental illness, and referred her to the psychiatric hospital for ongoing care.

 

To assess the mental health of a suspect, there are two stages that police investigators usually undertake. The first involves a direct interview of the suspect (“auto-anamnesa”) by a psychiatrist to assess their mental health. The second involves an examination of the suspect’s history, including their social environment (“hetero-anamnesa”). This might entail interviews with family or community members, or could even be based on the views of other police investigators. These two phases are considered sufficient to determine if the suspect has mental illness. In Suzethe’s case, police undertook both phases and determined that she was indeed schizophrenic.

 

According to Article 44(1) of the Criminal Code, a person who conducts a criminal act cannot be held responsible and punished for their behaviour if they have mental health issues. There is no question that if police followed correct procedures, Suzethe should have been freed of all charges.

 

But there are other cases where this article has been ignored. In March this year, a woman from Banten named Aisyah Tusalamah was sentenced to five months in prison, charged with breaching an article on hate speech under the notorious Electronic Transactions and Information Law (Article 28 (2)). Aisyah drew public ire after uploading four videos to Facebook in which she mis-recited the shahada, the Islamic declaration of faith, including by inserting false claims that the Prophet Muhammad was originally from Indonesia.

 

Three doctors from the Grogol Psychiatric Hospital concluded from examination that Aisyah – who reportedly believes herself to be a reincarnation of Nyi Roro Kidul, the mythological Queen of the South Sea, and claims to be the leader of a “Jellyfish Kingdom” of her own invention – experiences psychosis, a severe mental disorder, and should not be held legally accountable for her actions.

 

There are additional concerns about the police’s handling of Suzethe’s case. Although police referred her to a psychiatric hospital, they also issued a document known as a surat pembantaran, which “suspends” a suspect’s detention. This means that any time Suzethe spent in the hospital would not be subtracted from her formal period of detention, meaning that the normal time limits on police detention would not apply.

 

According to Supreme Court Circular No. 1 of 1989, such a letter should only be issued for people whose status has been upgraded to accused (terdakwa). At the time the letter was issued in respect of Suzethe, she was still only a suspect (tersangka).

Multiple interpretations  

According to the so-called Blasphemy Law, embodied in the Criminal Code under Article 156a, “any person who intentionally, in public, expresses feelings or behaviour involving hostility, abuse or defamation of a religion adhered to in Indonesia” faces a prison sentence of up to five years.

 

The main problem with this provision, however, is the highly subjective nature of the offence. In many incidents, there are differing opinions about whether the specific act reported to police involves blasphemy or not. The final decision usually comes down to the opinions of religious experts. Because the views of experts often differ, judges’ decisions will necessarily involve favouring the view of one religious community over another – and it is usually the majority view that wins out.

 

With the massive increase in blasphemy cases over recent years, the pattern has become depressingly familiar. An individual or group makes a complaint about alleged blasphemy, the case is publicised and outrage spreads, masses are mobilised, and the accused individual is attacked or harassed while demands are made for police and prosecutors to act.

 

Suzethe’s case is no exception. The Al Munawaroh Mosque board mobilised the local community to pressure Bogor Police into naming her a suspect and to continue processing her case. In fact, after she was arrested, Suzethe and her family continued to receive threatening text messages from unknown persons, even while she was undergoing treatment at the Marzuki Mahdi Psychiatric Hospital.

 

Police were well aware that Suzethe was schizophrenic – after all, they had referred her to a psychiatric hospital – and her case should therefore not have been processed. Despite this, they bowed to public pressure, and diverged from correct procedure.  What does this say about Indonesia’s criminal justice system, if it is prepared to punish people who are clearly mentally ill?

 

Suzethe is just the latest of many recent victims of Article 156a of the Criminal Code. The article was introduced in 1965 under President Soekarno, in response to lobbying by a conservative Muslim group who considered the teaching of mystical beliefs to conflict with Islam.

 

According to Human Rights Watch, the article was applied only a handful of times under President Soeharto’s New Order, but in more recent years has seen an explosion in the number of cases reported and brought to trial. During the decade that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was in power (from 2004 to 2014), as many as 250 cases were investigated by police, and 125 resulted in convictions. At least 40 people have been punished under the blasphemy law since President Joko Widodo came to office in 2014.

Resistance to change

Of the 50 countries in the Asia-Pacific region, Indonesia remains among the minority 12 countries that have a law on blasphemy, the Pew Research Center reports. Several member states of the United Nations Human Rights Council consider enforcement of these laws to be a violation of the obligation of states to uphold the civil and political rights of citizens, as well as a threat to national economic growth.

 

In Indonesia, several efforts have been made to revoke the so-called Blasphemy Law on the basis that it limits freedoms of expression and religion as guaranteed under Articles 28E and 29 of the Constitution. The related article in the Criminal Code was submitted to the Constitutional Court for review in 2009, 2017 and 2018, but in each case it was upheld.

 

Amnesty International, together with three other non-governmental organisations, submitted an additional legal opinion (“amicus curiae”) to the Constitutional Court stating that Article 156a on blasphemy conflicts with Indonesia’s constitutional commitment to human rights, including the rights to expression, religion, and non-discrimination. Yet the Court maintained that limiting certain rights can be justified in the interests of public order and “religious values”, according to Article 28J(2) of the Constitution.

 

First, the Court argued, the state has the right to regulate matters of religious belief and to outlaw teachings that may threaten public order. Second, non-orthodox religious teachings, different interpretations of beliefs, and even criticism of certain religious values, pose a potential threat to public order and political stability, the Court found.

 

Despite the criticism and the known problems with the Blasphemy Law, lawmakers deliberating recent changes to the Criminal Code have actually sought to expand blasphemy provisions in the draft revised code (RKUHP). Drafters claim that these provisions are essential to resolve problems and tensions related to living in diverse religious communities.

 

Politically, it will be near impossible to get rid of blasphemy offences in Indonesia. A new approach is needed to ensure the rights of religious minorities are protected, to say nothing of vulnerable groups like the mentally ill.

 

As Suzethe faces trial this week, the judges should do the right thing and throw the case out on the basis of her mental illness. Sadly, given the recent history of blasphemy cases in Indonesia, her family is not holding out much hope.

 

 

Minor edits have been made to this piece since publication.