Indonesia: Thousands Rally for, Against Christian Ex-Governor Convicted of ‘Blasphemy’

JAKARTA - Former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama has filed for a judicial review against his two-year prison sentence for blasphemy in a bid to overturn his conviction for insulting Islam.

Former Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, sentenced to two years in prison for blasphemy, has appealed the decision against him, triggering the presence of an estimated “thousands” supporting and condemning him before the North Jakarta District Court on Monday.

Ahok, an ethnic Chinese Christian, was convicted of accusing Islamic clerics of “deceiving” voters using a Quranic verse that allegedly warned Muslims not to allow themselves to be governed by a non-Muslim while on the campaign trail.

The Jakarta Post reports that, on Monday, the “road in front of the court, Jl. Gajah Mada, became crowded with thousands of demonstrators and police officers from 8 a.m” forward. Most appeared to be members of Islamic extremist groups, dressed in white in opposition to Ahok. A minority of those assembled, the newspaper notes, wore red to signify support for the former governor, who had once led in the polls before his conviction became a certainty.

Ahok’s attorney appeared in court Monday to file a case review petition, which would allow the court to re-open the case. The preliminary hearing lasted ten minutes and Ahok himself was not present, as it was meant merely to submit the request to re-open the case. The district court judge in charge noted that such a case would be up to the Supreme Court to reopen, and the Supreme Court has confirmed it has received the request and must review the evidence to issue a decision on the matter.

The defense’s case for relitigating the trial hinges on the conviction of another individual accused of tampering the video that judges used to convict Ahok.

In October 2016, a video surfaced of the governor discussing a Quranic verse that reads in part, “O you who have believed, do not take the Jews and the Christians as allies.” Some interpreted the video not as a joke, but as a condemnation of radical imams who use the verse to convince voters to vote against capable candidates. The video triggered massive protests against the governor. Islamic fundamentalist groups organized a riot 100,000-people strong calling for Ahok’s arrest and execution. The government responded by arresting and charging Ahok with blasphemy.

The court convicted the former governor shortly after he lost his re-election bid in May 2017, despite the fact that the prosecutor attempted to drop his charges from blasphemy down to “insulting Muslims,” a crime in Indonesia. Ahok had won the first round of voting in February, before it became clear he would be convicted.

Ahok chose not to appeal his case in the face of threats of violence from Muslims.

In November, however, the court ruled on another related case: communications professional Buni Yani was sentenced to 1.5 years in prison for “spreading hate speech” by tampering with the video allegedly showing Ahok committing blasphemy, including adding incorrect subtitles. In the Ahok case, the judge explicitly stated that the video being edited did not have anything to do with the charges before Ahok, however, complicating the defense’s case. The defense insists, however, that a court ruling sentencing someone to prison for selectively editing a video to make it more incendiary should change the approach the court takes to the original case

The prosecution argues that the specific video in question was not used at Ahok’s trial.

International observers have already begun to warn that the presence of thousands of protesters at the ten-minute preliminary hearing on reopening the case is a sign that Islamic fundamentalists will seek to influence the case, with violence if necessary. Amnesty International executive director Usman Hamid told reporters on Monday that “it’s difficult to confirm that the verdict will not be affected [by the protests].”

Ahok has been in prison for nearly one year, half of his sentence. His sentence also includes a complete ban on running for public office, however, which limits his career prospects once he concludes his sentence.

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