Blasphemy case: Ahok may get probation instead of jail

Jakarta's defeated incumbent governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (centre) looking on during a press conference in Jakarta, on April 19, 2017.

Outgoing Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama may avoid jail time in the blasphemy case against him after prosecutors recommended that he be sentenced to two years' probation in lieu of a suspended jail term.

But if he commits the same offence during probation, he should serve one year in jail, prosecutors told the court yesterday in their closing arguments.

The case involves a visit by Basuki - better known as Ahok - with constituents in September last year, when he was heard referring to a verse in the Quran when telling them that they should not be misled by opponents urging Muslims to reject a non-Muslim leader. Basuki is a Christian.

While state prosecutor Ali Mukartono maintained that Basuki had committed an offence, he said he took certain factors into account in his sentencing recommendation.

"Ahok acted politely during hearings, participated in the development of Jakarta, and the public disturbance (he is accused of causing) was partly due to a person named Buni Yani," said Mr Ali.

Buni Yani is a former lecturer at a private university who allegedly, in bad faith, edited and uploaded a video showing Basuki allegedly making the appeal that was deemed insulting to Islam.

A vital part of Ahok's statement was edited out of the video, creating the perception that his remarks were aimed at the Quran, rather than opponents who misquoted Quranic verses to support their political agenda.

News of the prosecutors' recommendation came yesterday morning after quick counts showed Basuki had lost a highly divisive election to former culture and education minister Anies Baswedan on Wednesday.

The recommendation will come as good news to Basuki, as Indonesian law bans anyone sentenced to five years' jail or more from holding public office. Basuki would also avoid being dismissed as governor with six months of his term left.

But the court is not slated to rule on his case until next month. He will have a chance to respond to the prosecution's recommendation at the next hearing, slated for next Tuesday.

"The two-year probation demand means that prosecutors know that the alleged action by Ahok was not with ill intent," independent lawyer Sylvester Riza told The Straits Times yesterday.

However, the prosecution's move angered Muslim hardline groups gathered outside the Agriculture Ministry auditorium, where the hearing was being held.

"This is not fair," an anti-Ahok protester shouted. Others were heard shouting "arrest Ahok". The protesters were seen trying to break through barbed wire to reach the courtroom.

An older protester reminded others to exercise restraint.

Basuki's lawyer Wayan Sudirta argued that prosecutors simply had no choice because their case was weak. "None of the witnesses brought to court by the prosecutors heard Ahok's speech directly. They heard only the video, while the law requires witnesses to hear directly - as in they were present at the scene," Mr Wayan told reporters.

The experts who gave their views on the case were biased or not objective because they were affiliated with parties who complained against his client, he added.

"It is weak from all angles. The prosecutors failed to present convincing evidence."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 21, 2017, with the headline Blasphemy case: Ahok may get probation instead of jail. Subscribe