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Playboy editor's case is a test for Indonesia

Erwin Arnada, editor of the now-defunct Indonesian edition of Playboy, is appealing his conviction and two-year prison term. (AP)

On Wednesday, Erwin Arnada, editor of the now-defunct Indonesian edition of Playboy, will be released from Jakarta's high-security Cipinang prison for a few short hours to stand beside his legal team in Indonesia's Supreme Court.

The Court has already sentenced him to two years in prison for public indecency, based on pictures the magazine published in 2006. Arnada's appearance on Wednesday will mark the beginning of an appeals process that could take up to a year.

The Committee to Protect Journalists and many international human rights groups have asked the Supreme Court to reverse its decision. We have also called upon President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to allow Arnada to remain free while the Court reviews his case.

So far, these appeals have fallen on deaf ears. We hope this will change. Arnada has cooperated with authorities from the beginning. He does not pose a flight risk. He surrendered himself to prison authorities on October 9, even though his conviction followed rulings from two lower courts, both of which overturned the charges against him.

Arnada has repeatedly demonstrated that he wants to work through the system to contest the charges against him. He wants to prove his innocence. He also knows that something larger than his particular case is at stake. The issue goes beyond publishing images that some people may have found offensive. (Even this is dubious; by Indonesian newsstand standards, the Playboy images were actually rather mild.) Arnada knows his case is about Indonesia's future and whether it will include one of democracy's crucial ingredients: a robust, independent and free press.

When Arnada launched the Indonesian edition of Playboy in 2006, he found himself in the crosshairs of the Islamic Defenders Front. The group reportedly attacked the magazine's Jakarta offices, forcing Arnada to move to Bali, where Islam does not hold such powerful sway. But after publishing ten issues, Arnada realized he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, trying to do what some others quite adamantly felt was the wrong thing. In 2007, he stopped publishing the magazine altogether, after a total of 10 issues.

Yudhyono has said that Indonesia is one of the world's foremost examples of a modern Muslim society. In September 2009, he spoke at an academic forum at Harvard, the university that is now educating his oldest son. He claimed that Indonesia was a model for how Islam, modern society and democracy could coexist. He said that tolerance and respect for religious freedom are part of Indonesia's "trans-generational DNA."

The dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Professor David Ellwood, also praised Indonesia's progress. "We hope we can learn from Indonesia's outstanding achievements in various aspects and from the ways in which you were able to make them," Ellwood was quoted saying in a report from Antara, Indonesia's official news agency.

But by failing to ensure Arnada's freedom during the appeals process, President Yudhoyono has taken a step backwards from the ideals he expressed--and was praised for--during that visit to Harvard.

Arnada's case is a test, one that places Indonesia at a crossroads. On one side is a nation that muzzles its media; on the other, a modern Muslim democracy. The Indonesian Supreme Court will rule on Arnada's appeal, probably within the next year. And if Indonesia is truly committed to the tolerant, democratic ideals that Yudhyono spoke of during his Harvard visit, Arnada will go free.

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