Haris Azhar is an advocate, human rights defender, and lecturer in Indonesia who has been involved in human rights work for over 25 years. In January 2024 Azhar, along with another human rights defender, Fatia Maulidiyanti, were acquitted of defamation charges after being accused of defaming the Coordinating Minister for Maritime and Investment Affairs during a Youtube video discussion which was uploaded on Ahzar’s page in August 2021. Contributing to the concerns around the obstruction of civic space in Indonesia is the jailing of activists and the suppression of protests, particularly in the run up to elections in 2024. In 2022 Amnesty International published a report that noted a decline in civil liberties and civic space in Indonesia. It noted, “In carrying out their legitimate activities to promote human rights, human rights activists and human rights organisations face threats and attacks, either directly or in the digital sphere.”

Here Haris Azhar shares how and why he believes the law can be used as a powerful tool to deal with repression of democratic voices and their rights. Read more from our In My Own Words series here.

My name is Haris Azhar. I would say I've been working, in general terms, on human rights issues for the last 25 years. I work across the country in Indonesia on some human rights, issues or situations, and in some conflict areas such as in Papua.

I have been working for and dealing with some vulnerable groups such as labour groups, as well as the indigenous people and victims from the violence as well. These days I practise as a lawyer, I do pro bono and also professional for-profit work where I use the profits work to subsidise the pro bono and public interest legal work. I have also joined some organisations, and I was director for two human rights organisations. So that's why I've been very human rights focused.

In early 2024 me and my friend Fatia were brought to court. We won, and we got a good decision from the court. But this is not the final one, because the attorney general has appealed to the Supreme Court. I think this whole process was meant to serve as an example.

The whole process, especially last year, was intended to be intimidation. The litigation or the pre-trial process was intended to intimidate me [and] not to not say more about the practice of business oligarchs in this country. But myself, lawyers, and groups here said, we would not say sorry. We would not stop speaking, and that those in power could continue their judicial harassment of us and that we would fight them.

And during the fight, a lot of things happened [such as] intimidations, negative accusations and campaigns. They accused us of hoax stories, but actually they did the hoax stories. They took over and intercepted my mobile phone as well. These are the lengths and practices of intimidation in place.

However, the process of the court for people like us, we pretty much don't really care about the final decisions. We can see the shadow of the prisons, because what the government thinks is important for them is for us to not have democratic voices. There aremany cases by politicians and by business groups that aim to criminalise decent voices, and it has become a [common] practice. There are even consultants that can help you if you would like to know how to criminalise decent/democratic voices.

It’s become an industry against freedom of expression, to show that, “This is what happens if you are against us.” They wanted to show they could bring me to court so the warning was that anyone who becomes the client of Haris should be aware. It was symbolic, and that’s what I mean it is a message to intimidate and to intimidate vulnerable groups especially.

Widespread engagement on human rights, working through organisations, has developed not only my knowledge, my skill, but also my networks. This has also developed my interest in what some of the ways we (as a nation) would like to put on the table with regards to issues of human rights.

As a practising lawyer, we have always believed here that we can use the law [to achieve justice]. However the movement here is not like in South Africa, as an example, where at one point in South Africa there was no real equality. There was no legal institution that could be used to secure fairness. We don't have that kind of situation here [in Indonesia], but we are still looking for the formalisation of equality and fairness.

We like to use the legal debate, space, and discourse as a way to combat evil, because the law provides the kind of tools or ammunition to attack evil. Those in power hide behind the law and therefore here in Indonesia, most of the battle and discourse always has an element of legality.

I believe that the law is one of the crucial things that need to be handled, in addition to other advocacy issues. Because we know that the law or legal mechanisms are [also] being used by the bad guys, by the oligarchs to justify and legalise their plans and to do their own business. Those in power always say that they have complied with the law, that they uphold the rule of law, but actually we know that the law they comply with is their own creation. It is their own definition. That’s why we [as legal practitioners] need to step in, even though it's not the popular action to do so.

If those in, and adjacent to, power cannot be left to create what is good and not good within the framework of law. We need to bring in the voices from the ground. We need to bring the voices from the indigenous people. We need to bring the voices from the labour groups, from the students, from the women's groups, and many other vulnerable groups who are connected to the issues.

This is instead of the politicians and the business groups alone making their own arguments and developing their own definitions. We cannot let them be, and let them take over in that kind of way. Rule of law and legislation, has to be accompanied and coloured by the vulnerable voices and interests. This is why we insist that a part of the campaign, part of the research, is that we take the legal action as well.

The gap between the haves and the political groups on the ground is huge. This has been happening year on year, and it is getting worse every year. The new regulations and legislations that we have here, which very much comply with the interests of the business groups which belong to some politicians, create more loose protection of rights of workers and women. For the youth and the students, they are getting fewer protections for their education and freedom.

There’s no freedom on campus for students anymore, [because of] intervention from the government and the police on campuses. It's getting obvious these days. So I think we need at least two things. First, figuring out how to protect vulnerable groups, because why they were attacked or would be attacked is because they found irregularities, and problematic issues behind the policies of the government, or the law.

These issues have led to economic issues, social issues, business issues and so the vulnerable groups make a choice where they complain or protest, but they get attacked by police, government and intelligence. That is why we need more collaborations with vulnerable groups.

We also need more friends — lawyers, international advocates, researchers — coming down into the rural areas, and into the urban areas to capture what is happening and make a noise, to campaign. That's why we need to have the first group that I mentioned before. We need not to deal with the substance of the problem, but with the second layer of the problem, [which is] the attacks of the participation, the effects to the participation. For this we need to have a lot of groups [working on] how to deal with this kind of shrinking space.

We just had the 2024 elections where we campaigned around the threat to our freedoms of speech and expression. Some of the candidates responded very well, but the one that was supported by the current regime didn’t have a strong resonance with what we are saying. In addition to the campaign, along with my criminalisation, myself, some friends and organisations submitted a complaint to the Constitutional Court.

Our complaint was regarding some legal articles which were being used against me and against some journalists. We won the case in the Constitutional Court earlier this year, and an article which had been used to criminalise a lot of people has now been dropped. But this win is very short [lived] because we have some articles within certain laws which allow the police to criminalise speech.

When I said we won, that's regarding just one article in our criminal code. But in the next year and a half we will have a new criminal code implemented and new articles to criminalise speeches. We will need to challenge those articles in the next two years. It's like Tom and Jerry, where we play hide and seek. It seems politicians and business need a shield to protect themselves from the public, hence these situations but we keep fighting them using the same law.

Legal institutions are not our institutions yet. They are still their institutions [meaning the powerful]. However to a certain degree, the legal space is an open stage for you to perform, to have a say. I think if we don’t fill the space, it will be filled by those who are not supportive of freedom of speech or freedom of expression.

These are the reasons why I think we have to join legal action. So as to not give space for evil to come in and occupy. Also, legal action is not the only type of work needed. It has to be one among others. For instance there is advocacy work too. But law cannot be neglected and that's why this current situation (and the coming situations), require more than just focusing on the legal system. It has to be about a collaborative methodology and approach.

As Told to Gugulethu Mhlungu, the article has been lightly edited for clarity.

In My Own Words

Demand Equity

I've Been Fighting For Human Rights For 25 Years. Here's Why I Still Believe the Law Is a Powerful Tool For Freedom.

By Haris Azhar