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Aktiv seit 3. September 2021 | Noch 35 Tage Laufzeit

Lecturer jailed for WhatsApp message

AI-Index: ASA 21/4674/2021

Saiful Mahdi, a university lecturer at the Syiah Kuala University in Aceh Province, was sentenced for defamation to three months in prison and a fine of Rp 10 million (approximately USD $690) for writing in a WhatsApp group chat a message criticizing the university’s hiring process of the candidates of civil servants. On 2 September 2021, he was escorted by the prosecutors to serve his prison sentence after the Indonesian Supreme Court rejected his cassation appeal. Amnesty International is calling on the President to grant Saiful Mahdi an amnesty, as he has been jailed solely for peacefully expressing his opinion.


In March 2019, Saiful Mahdi, a statistics lecturer at the faculty of math and science at Syiah Kuala University in Aceh Province, sent a message criticizing the result of a civil servant test for engineering faculty lecturers in a WhatsApp chat group. Among his messages, he stated, «I have received sad news about the death of common sense in the leadership ranks of the engineering faculty during the last civil servant test», and «Why is a faculty that was once so glorious now so faint-hearted?»

He wrote the message in response to a civil servant test held in late 2018 as a recruitment for lecturers at the university’s faculty of engineering. After the test, Saiful Mahdi heard a suspicion of irregularities in the selection process from a lecturer at the engineering faculty, who had worked there for two years and joined the test to obtain his civil servant status. He informed Saiful Mahdi that a test taker who reportedly did not meet administrative criteria had been able to join the selection process and later passed the test, while he himself was declared fail despite having scored the highest among other test takers during a competency test.

Saiful Mahdi, who had worked at the university for 25 years, analysed the scores of the test takers from the faculty of engineering and later concluded that there were irregularities in the scoring that should be reviewed. He later posted his criticism towards the selection process in the WhatsApp group, which comprised around 100 lecturers. His message circulated among the university’s employees and eventually reached the engineering faculty’s dean, who was not part of the chat group.

The dean reported Saiful Mahdi to the university’s senate, which later summoned him for clarification on 18 March 2019. After clarifying the issue, the senate sent a letter to Saiful Mahdi on 6 May 2019 asking him to write an apology letter to the leadership ranks of the engineering faculty and stating that he had violated the ethics code by making the statement. Saiful Mahdi, however, refused to do so and argued against the senate’s decision since he had never been examined in an ethics hearing for the case.

On 4 July 2019, Saiful Mahdi was summoned by the Banda Aceh Police as a witness in a defamation case reported by the engineering faculty’s dean. Following an investigation, he was named suspect and charged under Article 27 (3) of the Information and Electronic Transactions (ITE) Law for allegedly defaming the dean, even though Saiful Mahdi never mentioned any names in his WhatsApp message. The case was brought to trial, and on 21 April 2020 the Banda Aceh District Court sentenced him to three months in prison and a fine of Rp 10 million despite no clear evidence proving he had violated the law. He later filed an appeal against the verdict to the Banda Aceh High Court, but it was rejected. On 29 June 2021, the Supreme Court rejected the cassation plea submitted by Saiful Mahdi and upheld the lower court’s guilty verdict.

On 2 September 2021, prosecutors escorted Saiful Mahdi to start serving his prison sentence in Banda Aceh’s Class II A Penitentiary. On the same day, his lawyers sent an official letter to President Joko Widodo to ask him to grant Saiful Mahdi a Presidential amnesty. Under Indonesian law, the President can only grant an amnesty after seeking consideration from the advice of the House of Representatives.

The ITE Law, including Article 27 which contains an anti-defamation provision, has increasingly been used to criminalize people who peacefully exercise their right to freedom of expression using electronic means, such as writing messages in messenger platforms or sharing opinions in social media. The Indonesian authorities have also misused the draconian articles in the ITE Law to criminalize peaceful activists, journalists, and human right defenders who criticize the government. From January to June 2021 alone, Amnesty International recorded at least 39 individuals named suspects by the police for allegedly violating the ITE Law.

Take action

  • Write an appeal in your own words or use the model letter below.

  • Please take action before 3 November 2021.

  • Preferred language: English, Bahasa Indonesia. You can also write in your own language.

Model letter

Dear President Widodo,

I am concerned by the criminalization of Saiful Mahdi, a lecturer of Syiah Kuala University in Aceh, who was brought to Banda Aceh’s Class II A Penitentiary on 2 September 2021 to start serving his three-month prison sentence solely for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression.

As you may be aware, the Supreme Court rejected Saiful’s cassation appeal and upheld the lower court’s sentence that found him guilty of defamation for writing a message in a WhatsApp group criticizing what he suspected to be irregularities in a civil servant test at the university’s faculty of engineering. He was convicted under Article 27 (3) of the Information and Electronic Transactions (ITE) Law, which has been repeatedly used by authorities or private individuals to target critical voices.

I believe that Saiful Mahdi should not have been punished in the first place simply for sharing his opinion, as guaranteed by Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Indonesia has ratified. Moreover, I fear that his incarceration does not only violate his human rights, but also threatens academic freedom in the country.

I acknowledge that on the first day of his imprisonment, Saiful Mahdi’s lawyers submitted an official letter asking you to grant him a Presidential amnesty.

Therefore, I urge you to immediately grant Saiful Mahdi an amnesty and release him from jail. I also call upon the government to ensure that the right to freedom of expression is fully and effectively respected, protected, promoted and fulfilled, including by revising the ITE Law in accordance with Indonesia’s obligations under international human rights law.

Yours sincerely,

Appeals to

Ir. H. Joko Widodo
President of the Republic of Indonesia
State Secretariat
Jl. Veteran No. 17-18, Central Jakarta,
DKI Jakarta
Indonesia (10110)

Twitter: @jokowi


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Elfenauweg 51
3006 Berne

Fax: 031 351 67 65


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