A slap in the face of Indonesian justice system from Ahok

Is there justice in Indonesia? For some perhaps. But not for others.

And one man, Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, no longer seems to trust the justice system to want to test it to its full extent. Certainly not anymore after he was convicted by the court in the first place for blasphemy on May 9.

This week Ahok, as the 50-year-old governor is popularly called, withdrew his plan to appeal against the conviction to the High Court. He has effectively forfeited all his rights to contest the court ruling. Through his wife, Veronica Tan, Ahok said he would abide by the court's decision and serve the full two-year sentence.

This may be a sweet victory for his detractors, who had campaigned hard for months to ensure that he be imprisoned for remarks that they considered blasphemous and that he not be elected governor of the capital city.

They took to the streets and to social media, and held two massive demonstrations in Jakarta. They tore up the nation's unity by pitting Muslims against others, and they put pressure on everyone, from President Joko Widodo and the police to prosecutors and the court system, to get what they wanted.

They had a big hand in handing Ahok, a Christian of Chinese descent, defeat in the Jakarta gubernatorial election in April. They got the court to rule their way. Now they learn that Ahok has withdrawn his appeal, which they could justifiably read as an admission of guilt. For Ahok's detractors, it doesn't get any better than this.

With the finality of the court ruling, it is just a matter of time before Ahok is stripped of his position as governor, which would otherwise stand until October.


Basuki Tjahaja Purnama after a press conference in Jakarta in April. The governor withdrew his plan to appeal against his conviction for blasphemy, forfeiting his rights to contest the ruling. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

But to those who have followed the case closely, Ahok's decision not to appeal speaks far more about the country's broken court system, about what he thinks of the legal system, rather than about an admission of guilt.

It is a big slap in the face of the Indonesian justice system.

To those who have followed the case closely, Ahok's decision not to appeal speaks far more about the country's broken court system, about what he thinks of the legal system, rather than about an admission of guilt... It is a pretty serious reflection of the ability of the country's court system to deliver justice. And what does it say about our democracy when the legal system cannot be trusted?

And a huge thumbs down coming from an officer of the state - and a rare, fine one at that. It is a pretty serious reflection of the ability of the country's court system to deliver justice. And what does it say about our democracy when the legal system cannot be trusted?

Ahok refrained from being forthright about why he had decided not to appeal against the court ruling, perhaps with good reason. He must have learnt by now that anything he says can be used against him in a court of law, an adage that the brash governor should have heeded before citing a verse in the Quran in a speech that got him into this trouble.

Ahok has contested the charges since day one, first in the court of public opinion and later in a court of law. He insisted that there had been no intention of insulting Muslims and even went as far as making a public apology to those who felt offended by his remarks.

He heeded all the police and prosecutor summons, attended all the court hearings even as he was running for re-election or running the Jakarta administration. He presented his case well in court to convince the prosecutors to drop the blasphemy charge because of a lack of evidence.

The prosecutors instead settled for the lesser charge of inciting hatred against some Muslims and asked for a one-year probation. The court ignored the prosecutors and Ahok, went with the blasphemy charge and sent him to prison, immediately, rather than wait for the entire appeal process to be completed.

Can the legal system be more broken than this? Perhaps not in the eyes of someone who had fully trusted the system to deliver justice, someone who had respected the court system all the way throughout the process.

Most others would have appealed all the way up, even if the evidence was heavily stacked against them. In a system notorious for stories of a "court mafia" - where judges, prosecutors and defence lawyers collude to fix rulings - almost anything is possible.

There have been many cases in which a ruling by a lower court has been overturned by a higher court, only to be overturned again by the Supreme Court. Failing that, the lawyers can continue billing their clients by petitioning for a case review, effectively bringing the process back to square one.

Such is the legal system in Indonesia, to ensure that everyone has the right to seek justice to the full extent of the system, by appealing again and again. No wonder the Supreme Court reported that there was a backlog of over 18,000 cases at the end of last year.

The legal system is too big for one person like Ahok to fix, but at least he has exposed the flaws and the inability of the justice system to deliver justice to a fine and law-abiding citizen.

One small ray of hope is for the legal system to fix itself, at least when it comes to Ahok's case. The prosecutors have uncharacteristically filed a separate appeal with the High Court, asking for a lesser charge and lighter sentence, on the grounds that there was no evidence of blasphemy.

Stranger than fiction, yes, but it is no more ridiculous than the court deciding to ignore the prosecution's case in the first place.

It will be interesting to see how the legal system comes out of this Ahok predicament.

THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 03, 2017, with the headline 'A slap in the face of Indonesian justice system from Ahok'. Print Edition | Subscribe