JAKARTA, Indonesia — Foreign governments and human rights groups say the relatively light sentences given to 12 men who participated in the brutal killings of three minority Muslim sect members sends a chilling message about growing religious intolerance in Indonesia.
The attack — captured on video and widely circulated on the Internet — showed a frenzied crowd of around 1,500 descending on members of Ahmadiyah with machetes, wooden clubs and rocks to try to prevent them from worshipping.
Police looked on as the crowd pummeled the lifeless bodies of the victims, while others chanted "Allahu Akbar!" or "God is Great!"
The sentences handed down by the Serang District Court on Thursday ranged between three to six months — less than what an ordinary citizen would get for begging in the street or gambling.
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement that Washington was disappointed by the "disproportionately light sentences."
"The United States encourages Indonesia to defend its tradition of tolerance for all religions, a tradition praised by President Obama in his November 2010 visit to Jakarta."
Indonesia, a predominantly Muslim and secular nation of 240 million, has a long history of religious tolerance.
But experts say a small, extremist fringe has grown more vocal in recent years and is seeking — with some success — to impose its will on police, the judicial system and the government.
They are emboldened by the inaction of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who relies on the support of Islamic parties in Parliament, and does not want to offend conservative Muslims by taking sides.
The February attack on members of Ahmadiyah — considered deviant by many Muslims here and abroad because they do not believe Muhammad was the final prophet — followed a long string of attacks on religious minorities.
They included the stabbing of a Christian preacher in September 2010 as she tried to lead followers to her boarded-up church outside the capital, Jakarta. There also have been beatings and the burning of houses of worship.
But the attack in the town of Cikeusik was the most brutal — and it was caught on camera.
Dani bin Misra, seen smashing the skull of one of the lifeless victims with a rock, got three months in jail for public incitement, destruction of property and an attack that led to death.
Idris bin Mahdani, who led the mob to the house where followers of the Ahmadiyah sect were gathering, got 5 1/2 months for illegal possession of a sharp weapons and involvement in the attack.
New York-based Human Rights Watch slammed the decision.
It said police failed to conduct thorough investigations and prosecutors — who sought reduced sentences contending the Ahmadiyah provoked the attack — did not call key witnesses.
"Indonesian authorities should be making all-out efforts to bring to justice those who kill people because of their religious beliefs," said Elaine Pearson, the group's deputy Asia director.
"The Cikeusik trial sends the chilling message that attacks on minorities like the Ahmadiyah will be treated lightly by the legal system."