Jakarta’s Christian governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known by his nickname “Ahok,” has been convicted of blaspheming against Islam and sentenced to two years in jail.
The BBC notes that the sentence was “harsher than expected,” which does not bode well for the future of religious liberty in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation. Ahok continues to deny the blasphemy charge and will appeal the verdict handed down on Tuesday.
Ahok was defeated in last month’s gubernatorial race by a Muslim candidate, Aines Baswedan. The New York Times notes Ahok’s 16-point defeat was “seen as a sign of the increasing power of Islamic conservatives, who have pressed for the adoption of Islamic law, or sharia, throughout Indonesia.”
The incumbent lost despite enjoying a 76-percent approval rating because many Muslim voters were convinced they should only vote for a Muslim candidate. The religiously-charged election even spilled over into American popular culture when an anti-Ahok activist landed a job drawing comic books for Mavel and slipped coded Islamist messages into an issue of the X-Men.
Australia’s ABC News calls the Ahok verdict a victory for “mob politics,” arguing that Islamic extremists whipped up the mobs who saw an opportunity to take down an ethnic Chinese Christian leader.
As ABC notes, blasphemy charges were filed against the governor after massive protests were held, and “a big crowd of Islamists gathered outside the trial each week to remind the judges what would happen if he was freed.” ABC suspects those Islamist mobs will reappear outside any court that considers Ahok’s appeal.
A guilty verdict was handed down despite the support of moderate Muslim organizations for Ahok, and the fact that even the prosecutors conceded he meant no deliberate insult to Islam with his remarks.
In fact, the Jakarta Post notes that the blasphemy charges against him were ultimately dropped by the prosecution in favor of “insulting Muslims,” which is a crime under Article 156 of Indonesia’s criminal code. Prosecutors were seeking only a one-year suspended sentence. The judges reinstated the blasphemy charges and specifically stated he would be jailed because he “legitimately and convincingly conducted a criminal act of blasphemy.”
“As part of a religious society, the defendant should be careful to not use words with negative connotations regarding the symbols of religions, including the religion of the defendant himself,” the head judge declared.
“He was such a good man and great leader,” one of his moderate Muslim supporters told the BBC after the verdict was announced. “He didn’t care what religion people were. Now he has been framed.”
On the other hand, the BBC noted an angry mob of the governor’s Islamist critics denounced the sentence against Ahok as too light, saying they wanted at least five years in prison, if not, the death penalty. Some of them “threw their fists in the air and cried out that God would hand out justice.” Shouts of “Allahu akbar!” were heard.
The remarks that put Ahok in prison were made on September 27, 2016, while the governor was campaigning for re-election. At the time, he was considered a heavy favorite to win the election. During a conversation with voters on the island of Kepulauan Seribu, he accused his opponents of manipulating verses from the Koran to convince Muslims they were not allowed to vote for him.
A viral video was created about a week later, edited to make it look as if the governor was saying the Koran itself was lying to Muslims, rather than his opponents lying about what a particular Koranic verse said. The verse in question reads, “O you who have believed, do not take the Jews and the Christians as allies. They are allies of one another. And whoever is an ally to them among you, then indeed he is of them. Indeed, Allah guides not the wrongdoing people.”
Ahok apologized to any Muslims who felt insulted because he referred to the Koran and insisted he is not “anti-Islam,” to no avail.
Although the outgoing governor is still technically in office and has an appeal pending, he was imprisoned alongside hardcore criminals at Cipinang Penitentiary in Jakarta soon after the verdict was handed down. The deputy governor of Jakarta has assumed the position of acting governor until Baswedan’s administration begins.
“Ahok’s is the biggest blasphemy case in the history of Indonesia. He is the governor of Indonesia’s largest city, an ally of the president. If he can be sent to jail, what could happen to others?” Harsono asked.
Another human rights expert, lawyer Todung Mulya Lubis, told the Guardian it was disturbing to hear the judges in the Ahok case quoting the leadership of radical Islamist groups as experts on blasphemy, agreeing with Harsono’s judgment that the outcome was “a very sad moment for us.”
Amnesty International declared the verdict an “injustice” and called for the immediate repeal of Indonesia’s blasphemy laws.
“Despite protests of his innocence and evidence that his words were manipulated for political purposes, he has been sentenced to two years in jail. The verdict will tarnish Indonesia’s reputation as a tolerant nation,” said AI Director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific Champa Patel.