A landmark decision striking down an Indonesian book-banning law that has been used since the days of ex-dictator Suharto to clamp down on dissent was welcomed Thursday by historians, authors and rights activists.
For more than four decades, the attorney general's office could unilaterally prohibit publication or distribution of books deemed "offensive" or a "threat to public order." But the Constitutional Court ruled Wednesday such power should rest with a judicial court.
"It's great," said historian Hilmar Farid. "It symbolizes the end of a period of darkness for all of us. It will allow future generations to learn the truth about everything, from science to history."
Suharto stepped down in 1998 after 32 years of dictatorial rule, leading to reforms in the predominantly Muslim nation of 237 million that freed the media, vastly improved human rights and gave citizens the right for the first time to directly pick their leaders. Though the country is now seen as one of the most democratic in the region, some authoritarian policies remain in place, such as a continuing ban on communist and other left-wing organizations.
A group of authors and publishers whose books were banned last year asked the Constitutional Court to review the 1963 regulation that allowed it.
Their books -- and others -- touched on sensitive topics like separatist-torn Papua province, inter-religious conflicts, the role of the military and even scientific research.
In striking down the law, Judge Mohammad Mahfud told the court: "Any banning of books must be done through the legal process in a court."
Hundreds of books have been banned since the 1960s, including almost all 34 books and essays by late Indonesian author Pramoedya Ananta Toer, an outspoken democracy advocate who spent 14 years in jail during Suharto's reign.
In the last year alone, the government banned "Pretext for Mass Murder," a book about the role of the military in Suharto's rise to power by John Roosa, a professor at the University of British Colombia, and four other books written by Indonesians. Artist and illustrator Alit Ambara said he was thrilled.
"It will give students the change to learn about the past from different perspectives," he said, noting that history books continue to blame the Communist Party for an apparent abortive coup in 1965 that helped Suharto rise to power.