SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: April 21, 2020

Attack Types: Prosecution

Institution(s):Syiah Kuala University

Region & Country:Southeastern Asia | Indonesia

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On April 21, 2020, Indonesia’s Banda Aceh state court convicted Syiah Kuala University (Unsyiah) lecturer Saiful Mahdi in connection with online expression critical of the university. The court sentenced Mahdi to three months imprisonment and issued a fine of ten million rupiah (roughly USD $2,000)

Mahdi, a professor of statistics, was charged with criminal defamation under Indonesia’s Electronic Information and Transaction Law (ITE Law) for posting comments in February 2019 to a WhatsApp group comprised of roughly one hundred fellow academic and administrative staff. In the posts, Mahdi criticized the university’s leadership and the university’s process of hiring candidates who passed a civil service test as members of the university’s engineering faculty. According to a translation of the comments by the Jakarta Post, Mahdi wrote, “Innalillahiwainnailaihirajiun [We belong to Allah and to Allah we return]. I have received sad news about the death of common sense in the leadership ranks of [the university’s] engineering school during the last civil servant test. [Is this] proof that the technological determinism of the engineering [school] is very easy to corrupt?.” Mahdi then gave a traditional Chinese new year greeting of “Gong Xi Fat Cai !!!” and continued his commentary: “Why is a school that was once so glorious now so faint-hearted? Why do we take so much pride in a new faculty? Because meritocracy was applied starting with recruitment. Only the mediocre or those entangled in “debt” are afraid of meritocracy.”

Sometime after Mahdi posted the comments to the WhatsApp group, the dean of the engineering faculty filed a complaint. By early September 2019, police followed up on the complaint and opened an investigation into Mahdi, accusing him of criminal defamation under Article 27, Paragraph 3, of the ITE Law, which considers in contravention of the law “Any Person who knowingly and without authority distributes and/or transmits and/or causes to be accessible Electronic Information and/or Electronic Documents with contents of affronts and/or defamation.” Indonesia’s ITE law has been widely criticized by international human rights groups for undermining international freedom of expression standards.

According to reports of the trial which began on December 17, 2019, Mahdi argued that his comments were not directed at any specific members of the university, rather that they were critical of the institution’s leadership generally and its hiring processes.

As of this report, Mahdi is reportedly free while appealing the conviction and sentencing.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the prosecution and sentencing of a scholar in apparent retaliation for the nonviolent exercise of the rights to freedom of expression and academic freedom — conduct that is expressly protected by international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Indonesia is a party. State authorities have an obligation to refrain from restricting or retaliating against expressive activity, so long as it is nonviolent and responsible. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, prosecutions intended to retaliate against expressive activity undermine academic freedom and democratic society generally.

UPDATE: Mahdi began serving his prison sentence in September 2021, after the Supreme Court rejected his appeal. In October 2021, Indonesia’s House of Representatives granted amnesty to Mahdi.