Pushing for Tougher Sentences in Sexual Assault Cases in Indonesia | Sexual Assault News

Medan, Indonesia – It was every parent’s worst nightmare.

As six distraught families watched, the man accused of sexually abusing their daughters was sentenced to 10 years in prison by the district court in the city of Medan, Indonesia.

“Our children,” gasped the mother of one, as she slumped in her chair, raising fears she might faint.

Benyamin Sitepu, a 37-year-old Christian priest who was also headmaster of the Galilea Hosana school in Medan, was sentenced to five years less than the maximum sentence of 15 years sought by the prosecution.

The presiding judge said he gave Sitepu a shorter sentence because the priest had apologized for his crimes and had previously signed a settlement agreement with two of the victims’ families.

The prosecution and Sitepu are appealing the conviction.

Reacting to the verdict, Andreas Harsono, a researcher at Human Rights Watch Indonesia, told Al Jazeera that the sentence was too short, especially given Sitepu’s age and Indonesia’s remission system under which most prisoners serve about two-thirds of their sentence.

If Sitepu gets a reduced sentence, he could only serve around seven years behind bars and be free before he even turns 50.

“If he gets remission, he will be a relatively young man when he is released and will still be a danger to children,” said Harsono, who added that the short prison sentence would only add to the trauma of the children. victims.

Ranto Sibarani, a human rights lawyer in Medan who represented the families, said they were disappointed that Sitepu had not received the maximum possible sentence and called on religious organizations to take more responsibility for the crimes that took place. occur in the institutions they operate.

“If people commit crimes under the banner of the church, for example, then the church should apologize,” Sibarani told Al Jazeera.

“Religious leaders must make public statements that they support the legal process in all cases of sexual assault and that they support the rights of victims to take legal action.”

The allegations against Benyamin Sitepu came to light last year after a young girl told her grandmother she had been abused [Aisyah Llewellyn/Al Jazeera]

Medan Primary School became the center of a sexual assault scandal in March 2021, when six female students came forward after one told her grandparents she had been abused by the priest.

The girls, who were 13 at the time of the assaults, said Sitepu locked them in his office under the guise of teaching “special classes” such as ballet and touched them inappropriately.

One of the students alleges that Sitepu took her to a local hotel, telling school staff that he was taking her to off-site karate lessons, where he sexually assaulted and forced her to give him a blowjob.

After the student came forward, she was forced to take local police to the hotel and identify the room in which she was regularly assaulted – which Harsono and Sibarani criticized as adding to her trauma.

Sibarani added that in his view, Indonesian judges are reluctant to convict religious leaders or give them long prison terms because of historical ideas about respecting those in positions of religious authority.

new punishment

In recent months, Indonesia has gone through a difficult period with a number of disturbing cases of child sexual abuse making headlines across the country, many of which have implicated religious institutions.

In the West Java city of Bandung, the principal of a Muslim boarding school, Herry Wirawan, 36, was arrested and charged with raping 13 of his female students and impregnating at least eight of them from 2016.

On January 11, the prosecutor handling the case requested the death penalty if Wirawan is found guilty.

Ranto Sibarani, a human rights lawyer who represented the families, speaks to reportersThe families’ lawyer Ranto Sibarani is appealing the sentence because it is too lenient, especially since Sitepu is only 37 years old. [Aisyah Llewellyn/Al Jazeera]

Under Indonesian law, the maximum sentence in child sexual assault cases is generally 15 years, although judges can use their sentencing discretion if a case is deemed particularly harmful.

The prosecution also called for Wirawan to be chemically castrated under a new law that was signed by Indonesian President Joko Widodo a year ago following the brutal gang rape of a 14-year-old student in Bengkulu in 2016. The punishment has not yet been applied. .

On January 20, Lukas Lucky Ngalngola, known as “Brother Angelo”, a Catholic priest who ran an orphanage on the outskirts of Jakarta which housed more than 40 children, was jailed for 14 years for sexually abusing children whose he was in charge.

Delivering his judgement, the presiding judge, Ahmad Fadil, referred to the 47-year-old priest’s “despicable acts” and said his behavior had been particularly shocking for “a cleric who should have set a good example and who would have must have known that his actions were contrary to religious teachings.”

As the judge delivered his sentence via video link due to the coronavirus pandemic, Ngalngola raised his hands in prayer.

“They feel invincible, hiding behind their religion,” Sibarani said. “Who will stand up for the victims when the perpetrators are considered respected members of the community?

Ustadz Martono, a Muslim scholar and president of the United In Diversity Forum, told Al Jazeera that sexual assault cases involving religious organizations or religious leaders in Indonesia are often handled internally for fear of shaming the organizations that the chiefs represent.

“My wish is that these kinds of cases will be dealt with in a much more open way,” he said. “They must be treated transparently in accordance with the law.”

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, wearing a brown batik shirt, explains a point during a conversationLast year, Indonesian President Joko Widodo signed a new law allowing chemical castration of those convicted of child molestation. The courts have yet to use the sentence [File: Willy Kurniawan/Reuters]

Members of the Christian community also agree that more needs to be done and that religious organizations speaking out publicly can help authorities be less reluctant to make arrests and bring cases to trial.

“We support and appreciate the steps taken by the police and prosecutors to deal with the Benyamin Sitepu case in Medan and punish the perpetrator,” said Alex Ramandey, Deputy Secretary General of the Central Leadership Council of the Indonesian Christian Youth Movement. (GAMKI). Jazeera.

“Especially when the abuser is also a church figure who has embarrassed Christians.”

Ramadey adds that religious organizations should educate parents of children in their care on how to recognize and report such cases and support those going through the legal process.

It is unclear how many cases of assaults involving minors occur each year in Indonesia, as many cases go unreported to authorities.

According to the Indonesian Witness and Victim Protection Agency (LPSK), 288 child victims applied for protection in 2021. Of these, more than 65% were victims of sexual violence.

LPSK Vice President Edwin Partogi Pasaribu said 25 victims had suffered sexual violence in educational institutions.

“We need to respect people online and their religious beliefs, but they also need to be judged on their actions,” Martono said.

“If people are going to break the law, then they shouldn’t be religious leaders. We shouldn’t be embarrassed by the silence.

“Morally, we all have a responsibility and we need to recognize when these crimes are happening and not cover them up.

“If we say nothing, we are complicit.

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