By Kate Lamb
9 May 2017
Jakarta’s Christian governor has been sentenced to two years in prison after a trial that was widely seen as a measure of religious pluralism in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country.
Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known as Ahok, was “found to have legitimately and convincingly conducted a criminal act of blasphemy, and because of that we have imposed two years of imprisonment”, the head judge, Dwiarso Budi Santiarto, told the court.
“As part of a religious society, the defendant should be careful to not use words with negative connotations regarding the symbols of religions, including the religion of the defendant himself.”
Another judge, Abdul Rosyad, said reasons for the stiff sentence included that “the defendant did not feel guilt, the defendant’s act has caused anxiety and hurt Muslims”.
After the verdict was read out, Ahok was taken in an armoured police van to a prison in Cipinang, East Jakarta.
Hundreds of supporters wearing his signature red and blue check print gathered outside the jail on Tuesday afternoon. A candelit vigil was planned for the evening.
Photos posted on social media showed prison officials posing with the convicted governor.
Ahok’s lawyer said he would appeal against the sentence. It was unclear whether he would be released once the legal challenge was under way.
The blasphemy charge related to Ahok’s reference to a passage of the Qur’an during his re-election campaign in September, which hardline Islamist groups said amounted to insulting the holy book.
He insinuated that his opponents had used a Qur’anic verse to trick people into voting against him. An edited version of the speech went viral, sparking outrage. Ahok, a Christian with ethnic Chinese roots, is a “double minority” in Indonesia.
A series of protests against him drew hundreds of thousands on to the streets of the capital late last year. On Tuesday, hundreds of members of hardline Islamist groups gathered outside the south Jakarta courtroom amid a heavy security presence, with many calling for Ahok to receive the maximum penalty.
As news of the sentence emerged, some protesters shouted “God is greatest”.
The government has been criticised for not doing enough to protect religious minorities, but President Joko Widodo, an ally of Ahok’s, has called for opponents to respect the legal process.
Thousands of police have been deployed in the capital to prevent clashes between Ahok supporters and opponents. “Both groups will have the opportunity to demonstrate but we are taking steps to prevent clashes,” said the national police spokesman, Setyo Wasisto.
Ahok lost his bid for re-election in an April run-off to a Muslim rival, Anies Baswedan, who is scheduled to take over in October. The vote was the most divisive and religiously charged in recent years.
With Ahok in detention, Jakarta’s deputy governor, Djarot Saiful Hidayat, will assume the role of acting governor.
The decision to jail Ahok surprised some observers because prosecutors had called for a conditional sentence of two years’ probation.
They also dropped their demand that Ahok be charged with blasphemy under article 156a of the criminal code, which carries a maximum five-year sentence, instead recommending that he face a lesser charge.
Andreas Harsono, an Indonesia researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the verdict was “a sad day for Indonesia”.
“Ahok’s is the biggest blasphemy case in the history of Indonesia. He is the governor of Indonesia’s largest city, an ally of the president. If he can be sent to jail, what could happen to others?” he said.
Harsono said more than 100 Indonesians had been convicted of blasphemy in the past decade, with acquittals in such cases extremely rare.
Todung Mulya Lubis, a human rights lawyer who defended the Bali Nine duo Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, said it was worrying that one judge cited the leader of the hardline Islamic Defenders Front as an expert in the judgment.
“[The group’s leader] Rizieq Shihab cannot be considered as an expert because he openly, publicly accused Ahok of blasphemy, so he is not an independent, neutral expert any more. But the judges mentioned his name in their judgment and I thought this is not correct.
“The judges also talked about experts from [the Islamic organisation] Majelis Ulama Indonesia. With all respect, I don’t think they can be considered as experts because they had taken sides long before the trial.”
Lubis said the verdict set a “bad precedent”, adding: “Religion is a private matter … so when you put it in the criminal code it can be used by people to discredit and suppress others. This is the problem with the blasphemy law. This is a very sad moment for us.”