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Jakarta gov jailed for blasphemy

Sentence on Purnama much harsher than prosecutors had sought

JAKARTA: Indonesian Muslim protestors against Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama alias Ahok chant after a trial at the North Jakarta court yesterday. (Inset) Purnama speaks to his lawyers after judges delivered their sentence.—AFP

JAKARTA: Jakarta’s Christian governor was jailed for two years yesterday after being found guilty of blasphemy, in a shock decision that has stoked concerns over rising religious intolerance in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation. Islamic hardliners outside the Jakarta court shouted “God is greatest!” as news came through that Basuki Tjahaja Purnama would be sent to prison for insulting Islam, a surprisingly harsh punishment after prosecutors recommended only probation.

Purnama, Jakarta’s first non-Muslim governor for half a century and its first ethnic Chinese leader, looked calm when the verdict was announced and said he would appeal, as some of his supporters in court burst into tears. He was immediately transferred to jail and authorities said his deputy would take over running Jakarta for the final few months of his term.  Hundreds of his supporters descended on the prison shouting “Free Ahok” – Purnama’s nickname – and violently shook the gate of the facility.

The 50-year-old was hauled into court last year to face trial on charges of insulting the Holy Quran while campaigning for re-election, after the blasphemy accusations sparked a series of mass protests in Jakarta spearheaded by radical groups and encouraged by his rivals.  Tuesday’s jail sentence and his loss last month to a Muslim challenger in the Jakarta vote, which he had once been favorite to win, has fuelled fears that hardliners are growing increasingly influential and that the country’s much-vaunted tolerant brand of Islam is under threat.

“It’s another big step in the slow decline of religious freedom in Indonesia,” said Andreas Harsono, Indonesia researcher for Human Rights Watch, after Purnama was jailed. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed concern and urged Indonesia to review its blasphemy laws, while the European Union called on Jakarta to uphold its “long-standing tradition of tolerance and pluralism”. Indonesia, 90 percent of whose 255 million people are Muslim, has a long tradition of pluralistic values and is home to substantial populations of Christians, Hindus and Buddhists. But there has been a rise in attacks on minorities in recent years.

‘He has insulted us’
The five-judge panel at the Jakarta court found Purnama guilty of blasphemy after a months-long trial, in a case criticized as politically motivated. Announcing the verdict, presiding judge Dwiarso Budi Santiarto said Purnama was “convincingly guilty of committing blasphemy and is sentenced to two years in prison” and ordered him to be detained. Blasphemy carries a maximum jail term of five years in Indonesia but the sentence was a surprise as judges typically follow the recommendation of prosecutors – in this case, they had proposed two years of probation.

Analysts said the shock verdict could be a result of Purnama’s political rivals putting pressure on the country’s notoriously corrupt judiciary to remove him from power as soon as possible. President Joko Widodo, an ally of the governor, urged people to respect the decision of the court but added that “we must also respect the move by Basuki Tjahaja Purnama to file an appeal”. Outside the court, hundreds of Islamic radicals wearing white Muslim skullcaps celebrated as they heard about the jail sentence. “Thank God, he should be jailed – this is right. He has insulted us,” Bachtiar, 38, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, told AFP.

Despite the trial, Purnama retained a loyal following in Jakarta due to his determination to clean up the traffic-clogged and polluted city, and his supporters rallied outside the court and the prison. “Ahok is innocent and he doesn’t deserve this – he has done good things for us and the city,” said Sari Puji Astuti, 47, as she fought back tears. The controversy began in September when Purnama, known for his outspoken style, offended Muslims after he quoted a passage from the Koran during his re-election campaign. He insinuated that his opponents had used a Quranic verse to trick people into voting against him. Some interpret the verse as meaning Muslims should not vote for non-Muslim leaders. An edited version of his speech went viral online, sparking outrage. – AFP

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