By Joe Cochrane
May 11, 2017
As the jailed Christian governor of Jakarta prepared on Thursday to appeal his two-year prison sentence for blasphemy, his conviction has renewed criticism of Indonesia’s notoriously capricious judiciary and set off a nationwide debate on the rights of minorities in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation.
Legal experts noted that the verdict seemed to be based more on public reaction to the governor’s comments than what he had actually said, in effect holding him accountable for the mass protests organized against him by hard-line Islamist groups.
“That’s the problem with the blasphemy law,” said Bivitri Susanti, head of the Jakarta chapter of Indonesia’s Association of Constitutional Law Lecturers. “It’s not about the speech itself and whether it’s condemning Islam itself. It’s about whether society believes it’s wrong or annoys them.”
The governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, was convicted on Tuesday for comments he made in September challenging Muslim hard-liners who argued that a verse in the Quran prohibited Muslims from voting for a non-Muslim. Mr. Basuki said those who made that argument were misleading Muslims, a statement interpreted by some as insulting the Quran and Islam.
Mass rallies were organized calling for his arrest, with some zealots demanding that the governor be put to death. Many analysts said that the protests had been orchestrated by his political rivals and that they were a strong factor in his 16-point defeat in last month’s election.
The verdict by the five-judge panel hearing his case repeatedly said that Mr. Basuki, known as Ahok, had caused public unrest and offended the Muslim majority, citing an article in the decades-old blasphemy law banning “words that degrade, harass or insult a religion.”
Sidney Jones, director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, said the decision “underscored the rot at the core of the Indonesian legal system” and would further polarize the country.
“It isn’t the first time Indonesian judges showed no concern for evidence in a high-profile case, but it could be one of the most damaging,” Ms. Jones wrote in a commentary for the Lowy Institute. “It instantly sent a signal that non-Muslims are lesser citizens.”
Legal experts said the ruling relied heavily on public anger from hard-line Islamic groups, who have long opposed a Christian such as Mr. Basuki running Jakarta, and on the testimonies of “expert witnesses” on Islam and blasphemy — none of whom were present in September when the governor told a group of fishermen and local civil servants that it was acceptable to vote for a non-Muslim.
Police officers outside Cipinang Penitentiary in Jakarta, where Mr. Basuki was first taken and which houses violent criminals. He was transferred to a city police detention facility on Wednesday for security reasons. Credit Mast Irham/European Pressphoto Agency
“I believe that the street protests influenced the judges’ ruling,” Ms. Bivitri said. “You can really see in the decision, that instead of using other articles, they are using one about condemning religion.”
Experts also expressed concern about the motive for the seemingly vindictive two-year prison sentence. The prosecutors had asked for two years’ probation on a lesser charge, which would have spared Mr. Basuki prison time.
In explaining the sentence, the judges said they determined that the governor “did not feel guilty” about his comments.
“The judges didn’t think Ahok apologized enough,” said Melissa Crouch, a senior law lecturer at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.
Mr. Basuki apologized publicly months ago for any offense caused, but he has steadfastly denied that he insulted the Quran or committed blasphemy.
Shortly after the verdict was read live on national television, Mr. Basuki was driven past throngs of crying supporters outside the courthouse to the maximum security Cipinang Penitentiary, which houses violent criminals.
On Wednesday, he was transferred to a city police detention facility for security reasons, officials said.
His sister, Fifi Lety Indra, told Reuters that the family feared his life was in danger if he remained in prison. “The religious people have been saying in the mosques that his blood is haram,” meaning unclean in Islamic law, “and that killing him is good,” she said.
Mr. Basuki’s legal team is preparing an appeal to the Jakarta High Court to overturn his conviction and ask for temporary release from custody during the appeals process. Under Indonesia’s procedural code, he was not eligible to remain free during his appeal because he had faced a possible sentence of five years or more, according to legal experts.
Mr. Basuki’s campaign for governor and his simultaneous court hearings seem to have divided the country, leading to strained friendships, screaming around dinner tables and personal insults on social media. Comments from analysts and editorials in the local news largely supported Mr. Basuki and raised concerns about the future of Indonesia’s constitutionally enshrined pluralism. So did the candlelight vigils in Jakarta and other cities on Wednesday night.
A protest against Mr. Basuki in Jakarta last month. Critics of the blasphemy law say it allows the degree of public outrage, rather than what is actually said, to shape outcomes in court. Credit Ed Wray/Getty Images
But that division is another potentially disturbing result of the case, analysts said. Religious and ethnic tensions have been high for months.
Among Indonesia’s population of 250 million are more than 190 million Muslims, but there are also smaller, influential minorities including Christians, Hindus and Buddhists.
“First, this verdict is really intimidating for minority groups,” said Tim Lindsey, director of the Center for Indonesian Law, Islam and Society at the University of Melbourne. “Second, it tells Muslim politicians that they should try to use the religion card in other elections.”
“Religion has never been absent,” he continued, “but this is a real shift. This has been building up for a long time.”
Politics, many analysts say, is what the case was really about.
Mr. Basuki is a close ally of President Joko Widodo, who is up for re-election in 2019. Some analysts said the blasphemy case and the protests were orchestrated by Mr. Joko’s political opponents with the goal of snatching the powerful Jakarta governor’s post and weakening the president.
While there has been no solid evidence of that, the winner in the governor’s race last month, Anies Baswedan, a former minister of education and culture, was the candidate of the political party led by Prabowo Subianto. Mr. Prabowo lost a bitterly contested presidential race in 2014 and appears set to run against Mr. Joko again.
At a victory celebration the day after the Jakarta election, Mr. Prabowo publicly thanked leaders of two hard-line Islamist groups that had organized the anti-blasphemy protests.
A religion-based attack has already been tried on Mr. Joko. He is Muslim, but fake reports spread on social media during his 2014 campaign that his father was an ethnic-Chinese Christian from Singapore.
If religion was harnessed for political ends, the question Indonesians must answer is at what cost.
On Thursday, local news outlets reported that Indonesia’s Supreme Court was promoting three of the judges who had heard Mr. Basuki’s blasphemy case, including the head judge, Dwiarso Budi Santiarto.
Ridwan Mansyur, a Supreme Court spokesman, said the judges were promoted as part of normal assessments, Viva news reported on its website. “It has nothing to do with the Ahok case,” he said.