Indonesia blasphemy woman endures cramped cell, bad food

FIEL - In this Aug. 21, 2018, file photo, ethnic Chinese woman Meiliana weeps during her sentencing hearing at a district court in Medan, North Sumatra, Indonesia. A rights group says the Indonesian woman imprisoned for blasphemy after complaining about noise from a mosque is sharing a cramped cell with 16 other women and given “terrible” food. (AP Photo/Binsar Bakkara, File)

JAKARTA, Indonesia — A rights group says the Indonesian woman imprisoned for blasphemy after complaining about noise from a mosque is sharing a cramped cell with 16 other women and given "terrible" food.

Human Rights Watch researcher Andreas Harsono said the ethnic Chinese woman, Meiliana, was emotional but tough when he and other supporters visited her in prison in Medan this week.

"She was sobbing when talking to us," Harsono said Thursday in a statement about the visit. "The cell is about 30 square meters. The food is terrible," he said.

The case has highlighted how Indonesia's blasphemy law has become a tool for Islamic hardliners to persecute followers of minority religions.

Meiliana, who uses one name, was sentenced to 18 months in prison last month. She was charged in May, nearly two years after her comments sparked riots in Tanjung Balai, a Sumatran port town.

Her husband and two sons feared for their safety and moved to Medan, said Gomar Gultom, secretary general of the Communion of Churches in Indonesia.

He wrote on Facebook after visiting Meiliana that she was a "great person who dared to voice something that has been buried in the hearts of many people, maybe even in the hearts of some rational-minded Muslim friends."

Indonesia's largest Muslim organization, Nahdlatul Ulama, has criticized the conviction and said the complaint wasn't blasphemous. A civil society group is raising funds for an appeal.

Meiliana's ordeal began in July 2016 when she asked if the volume of the loudspeakers at her neighborhood mosque could be lowered.

Rumors spread in Tanjung Balai that she wanted to stop the five-times-a-day call to prayer. Days later mobs attacked her home and burned and ransacked at least 14 Buddhist temples.

"The police were busy dealing with the riots. But they also questioned Meiliana. She was not charged but needed to report to the police once a week for two years," said Harsono. "But the case did not go away. Pressure from Islamists made the police hand over the case to the blasphemy law office."

Since 147 people have been imprisoned under blasphemy or related laws since 2004, according to monitoring by Human Rights Watch. The number of cases has slowed since 2014 under President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo's administration.

Last year, former Jakarta governor Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama, a Christian, was imprisoned for two years after being found guilty of blasphemy for comments made during his re-election campaign.

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This story has been corrected to show the woman's name is spelled Meiliana.

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