The North District Court in Indonesia’s capital has found outgoing Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama guilty of blasphemy for suggesting that some people had abused a Quranic verse to block his re-election bid.
In September 2016, Ahok, who is an ethnic Chinese Chistrian, said in a speech in Thousand Islands regency that some people had been “deceived” by others using Al-Maidah 51, a Quranic verse some clerics believe prohibits Muslims from electing a non-Muslim leader.
Ahok’s two-year prison sentence for blasphemy is seen as a blow to religious tolerance in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country.
During the election campaign, in which Ahok lost his bid for reelection, Islamist groups organized mass demonstrations.
Jakarta’s Governor Ahok is an ally of Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, and the verdict is likely to reignite fears about the secular norms in the country are at risk.
A panel of judges from Jakarta’s North District Court led by Dwiarso Budi Santiarso sentenced Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama to two years in prison on Tuesday, The Jakarta Post reported.
“The defendant Ir. Basuki Tjahaja Purnama alias Ahok is proven guilty of committing blasphemy,” Dwiarso said.
Ahok, whose governor term ends in October, has said he will appeal the sentence. He denied wrongdoing, but apologized for the comments.
He was initially charged with blasphemy under Article 156a of the Criminal Code and with defaming clergymen under Article 156.
The prosecutors, however, dropped the blasphemy charge in their sentence demand, saying there was no evidence that the governor had committed blasphemy.
They asked the court to sentence Ahok to two years’ probation and one year in prison if he reoffended.
However, the judges ignored the prosecutors, and said Ahok was guilty of blasphemy, hence sentencing him to two years in prison.
The Jakarta Post comments that the blasphemy allegation against Ahok has divided Indonesia and emboldened radical Islamist groups who claim to speak on behalf of all Muslims, largely causing Ahok’s defeat in the April 19 gubernatorial election.
The governor was taken to an East Jakarta prison after the verdict and his lawyer Tommy Sihotang said he would remain there despite his appeal process unless a higher court suspended it, Reuters reported.
Ahok’s sentence caused shock and anger among supporters who gathered outside the prison.
Some lay down outside the jail blocking traffic, chanting “destroy FPI”, referring to the Islamic Defenders Front, a hardline group behind many of the protests against Ahok.
Thousands of police were deployed in the capital in case clashes broke out, but there was no immediate sign of any violence after the court’s verdict.
‘Respect the Ruling’
Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has called on the public to respect the North Jakarta District Court’s ruling, i.e. the two-year imprisonment sentence to Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama for blasphemy.
“All parties shall respect the legal process, including the verdict, which was just read out by the panel of judges, as well as Ahok’s move to file an appeal. Most importantly, we all believe in legal mechanisms to settle problems,” Jokowi said on the sidelines of his visit to Jayapura, Papua, on Tuesday, as cited by The Jakarta Post.
“The government cannot interfere with the legal process,” the President added.
A number of international organizations have expressed concern about the state of human rights in Indonesia following Ahok’s guilty verdict.
The European Union Delegation to Indonesia and Brunei Darussalam issued a statement calling on the Indonesian government and people to continue their country’s long-standing tradition of tolerance and pluralism.
“Indonesia and the EU have agreed to promote and protect the rights […] such as the freedom of thought, conscience and religion and freedom of expression,” it stated.
“The EU has consistently stated that laws that criminalize blasphemy when applied in a discriminatory manner can have a serious inhibiting effect on freedom of expression and on freedom of religion or belief,” the EU Delegation added.
The ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) also expressed concern, stating that the verdict could put Indonesia’s position as a regional leader “in jeopardy and raises concerns about Indonesia’s future as an open, tolerant, diverse society,” said Charles Santiago, a member of the Malaysian Parliament and APHR chair.
The APHR said the ruling could embolden religious hard-liners and called into further question Indonesia’s harsh blasphemy law.
“The conviction of Jakarta Governor Ahok demonstrates the inherent injustices of Indonesia’s blasphemy law,” said Amnesty International Indonesia.