Image: Protest for 3 militiamen
Stringer/indonesia  /  Reuters
Indonesians attend a rally in Jakarta Friday against the planned execution of three Christian militants.
updated 8/11/2006 2:24:14 PM ET 2006-08-11T18:24:14

Indonesian officials issued a last-minute stay of execution Friday night for three Christian militiamen on death row, but they added that the sentences would still be carried out.

The delay came hours after an appeal by Pope Benedict XVI to Indonesia’s president to spare the men, who were found guilty of killing Muslims in religious clashes in 2000 on Sulawesi island.

Fabianus Tibo, Marinus Riwu and Dominggus da Silva had been scheduled to die by firing squad early Saturday.

Speaking minutes before the men were scheduled to be killed, national police chief Gen. Sutanto said the executions would be carried out after Aug. 20, but gave no exact date.

He said Sulawesi officials had told him the execution was delayed because they were too busy preparing for celebrations to mark Indonesia’s independence on Aug. 17.

“This is just a matter of timing,” Sutanto told reporters in Jakarta.

The last-minute papal appeal came in a telegram by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican’s secretary of state. Sodano extended his greetings to the president while “trusting that this appeal made on behalf of His Holiness will meet with a positive outcome.”

Spokesmen for President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono declined to comment on the appeal.

In the Christian-dominated town of Tentena on Sulawesi, dozens of people occupied the local prosecutor’s office and said they would not move unless the executions were delayed, witnesses said. Scores of others prayed in the town’s cathedral.

Men maintain their innocence
The European Union also urged the government not to carry out the punishment and dozens of Christians in at least two other Indonesian cities protested the plan to put the men to death.

The three all maintained their innocence, but their final appeal to Yudhoyono was turned down last year.

George Aditjondro, an academic who has studied the causes of the conflict on Sulawesi, said the government is under pressure from conservative Muslims to execute the men after trying to speed up the executions of three Muslim militants on death row for the 2002 Bali bombings.

Executing the Christian militants “is a kind of crude barter so that the government can been seen as being fair to both communities,” he said. “There is national politics behind this.”

Around 1,000 people from both faiths were killed in the Sulawesi conflict.

Amnesty International has expressed concerns about reports indicating the trial of the three men did not meet international standards of fairness.

Thamrin Amal Tomagola, another expert on the conflict, said prosecutors had presented strong evidence the men were involved in violence, including a massacre of Muslim men, women and children sheltering at a boarding school.

Unfair blame?
But he said the men, who are uneducated farmers, were not the ringleaders and killing them would mean the state was losing valuable witnesses in later prosecutions. “I am concerned they are being made the fall guys,” he said.

Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim nation but it has significant Christian minorities. In Sulawesi and some other eastern regions, Christian and Muslim populations are roughly equal in size.

Violence between Christians and Muslims on Sulawesi had spread from the nearby Maluku Islands, where about 9,000 people were killed. Few people have been brought to justice from either community.

Indonesia’s most recent executions were last year, when three people were killed for drug smuggling and one for murder. Before that, its last executions were in 2001.

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