Hardline Muslim cleric gets jail and fine in Indonesia for flouting Covid-19 curbs

Muslim cleric Rizieq Shihab (top) was handed the prison term for violating the health quarantine law. PHOTO: REUTERS

JAKARTA (REUTERS) - An Indonesian court on Thursday (May 27) sentenced hardline Muslim cleric Rizieq Shihab to eight months in prison and fined him 20 million rupiah (S$1,840) for breaching coronavirus curbs after his return last year from self-imposed exile.

A live stream of the court hearing showed Rizieq, the spiritual leader of the Islamic Defender's Front (FPI) - an outlawed Islamist vigilante group - dressed in a white tunic, turban and face mask, clutching prayer beads.

Judge Suparman Nyompa handed Rizieq the prison term for violating the health quarantine law in relation to several mass events, including his daughter's wedding, which was attended by thousands.

Separately, he was fined for an event held at an Islamic boarding school in West Java.

Prosecutors had sought a two-year prison sentence for inciting his followers to attend mass gatherings, though he was cleared of this charge.

Some 3,000 police officers were deployed to guard the courthouse in East Jakarta ahead of the verdict, but there were no big protests by his supporters.

Rizieq came back to Indonesia in November 2020 after three years in Saudi Arabia, where he had fled while facing charges of pornography and insulting the state ideology. Both charges were later dropped.

Thousands of his followers had thronged the airport to celebrate his return, and then joined mass events in the days that followed, despite rules to limit gatherings as Indonesia grappled with the worst coronavirus outbreak in South-east Asia.

His legal team had claimed the cases were politically motivated and part of efforts to silence the cleric, who has a large and vocal following in the world's biggest Muslim-majority country.

Some 3,000 police officers were deployed to guard the courthouse in East Jakarta ahead of the verdict. PHOTO: REUTERS

The FPI has become politically influential in Indonesia in recent years, and was among several Islamic groups that staged rallies in 2016 to bring down Jakarta's then Christian governor on charges of blasphemy.

The mass protests against the governor caused deep anxiety within the government of President Joko Widodo about a perceived Islamist threat.

The government has since sought to crack down on some Islamist groups, including banning FPI and Hizb-ut Tahrir Indonesia.

In December 2020, the police killed six of Rizieq's supporters in a shootout, saying they acted in self-defence after weapons were pointed at them. The FPI accused the police of carrying out extrajudicial killings.

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