Indonesia arrests 5 people including leader of hardline group for suspected treason

Indonesian soldiers stand guard near the presidential palace ahead of a planned protest calling for the removal of Jakarta's governor in Jakarta on March 31, 2017.
Indonesian soldiers stand guard near the presidential palace ahead of a planned protest calling for the removal of Jakarta's governor in Jakarta on March 31, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

JAKARTA (REUTERS) - Indonesian police arrested five people, including a leader of a hardline Islamist group, for suspected treason on Friday (March 31), before a protest by thousands of Muslims demanding the sacking of Jakarta's Christian governor, a police spokesman said.

Religious and political tensions have been running high ahead of the second and final round of the Jakarta election on April 19. Incumbent Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama, who is on trial for blasphemy, is competing against a Muslim candidate.

Jakarta police spokesman Argo Yuwono told Indonesia media that five people had been arrested early on Friday, including Muhammad Al Khaththath, a leader of the Islamic People's Forum (FUI), a hardline group that organised Friday's rally.

"We are charging them with conspiring to commit treason,"Yuwono told broadcaster TVOne. "There were several findings, including a plan to occupy the Indonesian parliament," he said.

Thousands of protesters gathered at Jakarta's grand mosque on Friday as police and military personnel blocked off roads leading to the presidential palace in the city centre.

Muslim protests have targeted Purnama, an ethnic Chinese Christian, on trial for allegedly insulting the Koran in connection with remarks he made about how people should vote. He denies the charge.

Purnama is backed by President Joko Widodo's ruling party and the sudden rise of fringe, hardline Muslim groups during the election campaign has raised questions about whether they are being used as political pawns and destabilising Indonesia, a secular nation with the world's largest Muslim population.

Friday's rally is the latest in a series that have tested religious and ethnic tolerance in Indonesia. An estimated 20,000 people from various groups were expected to attend, police said this week.

Purnama remains popular for his efforts to cut red tape and ease Jakarta's chronic traffic congestion and flooding. However, he faces a tight race with rival Anies Baswedan, a former education minister.