Shock decision to jail Ahok continues to divide Indonesia

Supporters of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, also known as Ahok - who is non-Muslim and an ethnic Chinese - gathering at City Hall in Jakarta yesterday. His guilty verdict and sentence of two years' jail over a speech he gave last September have thrust Indo
Supporters of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, also known as Ahok - who is non-Muslim and an ethnic Chinese - gathering at City Hall in Jakarta yesterday. His guilty verdict and sentence of two years' jail over a speech he gave last September have thrust Indonesia's national value of unity in diversity, and its racial and religious tolerance under a global microscope.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The guilty verdict against former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama continues to divide Indonesia's capital, a day after a district court sentenced the Christian minority politician to two years in jail for blasphemy against Islam.

Critics panned the decision to hand him a heavier-than-expected sentence, which he must serve immediately, saying the court had bowed to public pressure.

But conservative Muslim groups welcomed the ruling, and called on all parties to respect it.

Mr Abdul Mu'ti, general secretary of Muhammadiyah, Indonesia's second-largest Islamic organisation, yesterday called the verdict "a fair, elegant resolution" that was in line with existing laws.

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"Although they could have sentenced him to the maximum five years in jail as allowed by the law, the judges considered that Ahok had been cooperative," he said, using Basuki's Chinese nickname.

 

Deputy House Speaker Fadli Zon, who was among a handful of lawmakers who took part in the street protests against Basuki, agreed. "I think the verdict is based on strong legal evidence and represents the justice the people want," he said.

The charge against Basuki involved a speech he gave last September, when he referred to Al-Maidah 51, a verse in the Quran, when telling constituents that they should not be deceived by his opponents into believing that Muslims cannot elect a non-Muslim leader.

A five-judge panel made a surprise decision to overrule the prosecution's recommendation of proceeding with a lower charge and sentencing Basuki to probation.

Presiding Judge Dwiarso Budi Santiarto said the court took issue with Basuki using the word "deceived", saying that by associating it with Al-Maidah 51, the politician implied the verse was a lie.

Therefore, Basuki had insulted and defamed a verse in the Quran, he said during the hearing.

Basuki's supporters reacted to the ruling with disbelief. Many broke down over the latest setback for the governor, who had just lost last month's election.

A contentious point was when the court acknowledged the testimony given by Islamic Defenders Front leader Rizieq Shihab and cited him as an authority on the Quran during the hearing.

The hardline cleric is currently under police investigation for blasphemy against Christianity, and pornography, among other allegations. He is also one of Basuki's fiercest critics, having led many anti-Ahok protests since late last year.

"Rizieq is not qualified to be an expert," rights advocate Todung Mulya Lubis told Reuters. "I was so shocked listening to that."

The case has thrust Indonesia's national value of unity in diversity, and its racial and religious tolerance under a global microscope.

Human Rights Watch's Phelim Kine has called Indonesia's blasphemy laws "abusive".

International groups such as the United Nations and European Union, as well as the Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights, among others, have also expressed concerns over Tuesday's verdict.

Meanwhile, support for Basuki continues to grow not just in Jakarta, but also across Indonesia.

Yesterday, thousands gathered at City Hall and were led by renowned conductor Addie Muljadi Sumaatmadja and acting governor Djarot Saiful Hidayat in singing nationalistic songs. Many had come to Jakarta from all over the country to show support for Basuki, who remains in jail.

 

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 11, 2017, with the headline 'Shock decision to jail Ahok continues to divide Indonesia'. Print Edition | Subscribe