Police grill Jakarta governor in marathon session

File photograph of Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known by his nickname Ahok, speaking to journalists at his office in Jakarta.
File photograph of Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known by his nickname Ahok, speaking to journalists at his office in Jakarta.PHOTO: AFP

Chinese Christian, who is favourite to win Feb election, questioned for nine hours

JAKARTA • The capital's Christian governor faced a marathon police grilling yesterday for allegedly insulting Islam, after the accusations escalated into a violent mass protest led by hardliners in the Muslim-majority country.

Last Friday's demonstration started peacefully but descended into chaos as night fell, with protesters torching police cars and hurling rocks and bottles in the heart of Jakarta as they demanded the leader be jailed for blasphemy.

Scores of police officers were injured and one man died in the clashes close to the presidential palace, reportedly after tear gas fired by the authorities triggered an asthma attack.

The protest, involving some 100,000 people led by the hardline Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), was sparked by accusations that governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a Chinese Christian, had insulted the Quran while campaigning in elections for the Jakarta governorship.

He said his opponents were using a Quranic verse, which suggests that Muslims should not choose non-Muslims as leaders, in order to trick people into voting against him.

Police had already started the investigation into Mr Basuki - widely known by his nickname Ahok - before Friday's protest, after Muslim groups accused him of breaking the country's tough blasphemy laws.

He was yesterday questioned at the national police headquarters in Jakarta, emerging after nine hours and making his way through a media scrum.

Mr Basuki dodged questions, only telling reporters: "I want to go home, I am hungry."

Police said they plan to finish questioning about 30 witnesses over the case this week and will decide next week whether any crime had been committed.

If found guilty, Mr Basuki - the favourite to win the February elections against two Muslim opponents - could be jailed for up to five years.

He has apologised for his remarks, claiming that he was criticising his political rivals who were using the verse, rather than the Quran itself. But this has done little to appease his opponents.

Thousands of police and soldiers were deployed before the rally in the capital of the world's most populous Muslim-majority nation, but it took them hours to quell the violence with tear gas and water cannon.

The protest forced President Joko Widodo to cancel an official visit to Australia due to start at the weekend. Mr Joko has blamed "political actors" for fanning tensions at the end of the rally.

He said he respected the people's desire to protest but "regretted" the rally had turned violent. "Political actors are taking advantage of the situation," he said on Sunday.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 08, 2016, with the headline 'Police grill Jakarta governor in marathon session'. Print Edition | Subscribe