Court Jails Jakarta Governor on (Political) Blasphemy Charge

Despite prosecutors recommending probation on a lesser charge, a five-judge panel has sentenced Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja “Ahok” Purnama to two years in prison for blasphemy. The decision, coming just weeks after Ahok lost a bid for reelection in a religiously charged race, has shaken Indonesia’s reputation as a moderate Muslim nation.

Ahok, as the ethnic Chinese Christian politician is universally known, told the court he would appeal the sentence over the next seven days. However, he was immediately transferred to Cipinang Prison as some supporters wept while members of Islamic groups celebrated.

If the trial was regarded as a test of religious tolerance in the Muslim-majority country, Indonesia failed the test.

“That will teach you to be competent and not a Muslim,” said a western businessman of Ahok, who lost an April 14 runoff to Anies Baswedan, a Muslim former university rector. “He was the wrong race, the wrong religion and he was too honest. Welcome to Indonesia. His statement was distorted and religion was used for political ends. Full stop. Many of my close Indonesian friends fear this is a turn toward an Islamic republic eventually."

Although prosecutors had withdrawn the blasphemy charges and recommended probation for insulting individual Muslims in a speech last September, the judges said they disagreed and found Ahok “legally and convincingly guilty of blasphemy.”

“The court does not find anything which could excuse the defendant’s actions therefore the defendant must be held responsible for his actions,” the judges said, imposing a two-year custodial sentence. They also dismissed a defense assertion that political considerations were behind the filing of the charges.

It is hard to escape the idea that political considerations were paramount, however. The blasphemy case was used skillfully by President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo's 2014 presidential opponent, Prabowo Subianto, whose political machine backed Anies, and by Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, a hardline Islamic group that played an essential role in the campaign. Anies was Widodo's education minister until he was dismissed last year amid rumors of incompetence.

Jokowi counterattacked over the weekend by banning HTI, as the organization is known. The banning, said a cabinet official who asked not to be named, was related to the campaign against Ahok. The official said the president discussed the issue with top advisors and concluded that HTI, because of its ideological drive for a Sharia state, constitutes a fundamental threat to the nation. The more well-known Islamic Defender's Front is not seen as the same kind of threat, the government believes, because it is basically an extortion racket linked to the police and as such is often said to be paid to throw its supposedly righteous anger behind one cause or another.

“Ahok is clearly the biggest name in Indonesia to fall under the blasphemy law since it was introduced in 1965,” said Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia Director of Human Rights Watch. “What this portends is very worrisome – because if someone as senior as the sitting governor of Jakarta, the country's largest city, can be taken down this way, who is next? The reality is that this is a fundamentally rights abusing law that should be stripped off the books and never replaced because it has such a burden on freedom of expression and religious freedom."

Robertson predicted “the beginning of a very dark chapter in Indonesia, where non-Muslims could be prosecuted and sent to prison simply for discussing Islam in any way other than prescribed by the Indonesian Ulama Council.”

By all accounts, Ahok, who moved from deputy to governor when Widodo became president in 2014, was the most competent public official the city had ever seen. He put crews to cleaning the refuse-filled rivers, moved protesting squatters into public housing, reformed the notoriously corrupt budget process, cleaned up public tendering, began to straighten out the chaotic traffic situation and began other dramatic reforms, including flood control.

"Ahok is certainly the best governor Jakarta has ever had,” a businessman said. “He is transforming the city's infrastructure while overhauling municipal services, ending the city's massive flooding problems and done little things like make it possible to get potholes repaired without bribes. His reward? A jail term for a medieval crime he didn’t commit."

Rights organizations and others expressed deep concern it sets a precedent for a pluralist Indonesia in that it supports Islamists who claim that Muslims should have only Muslim leaders. It paints a bigger apprehension that minorities – particularly the Chinese, who have been subjected to various pogroms over the years that have taken many lives – may want to take their capital, skills and knowledge to other countries. What is clear is that the implications of this action range from very troublesome to totally disastrous, and it's not sure the outcome is within the government's control.

The controversy began last September when Ahok quoted Surat Al-Ma’idah 51, the 51st verse of the Quran, which is often used to urge Muslims to vote only for Muslim political candidates. The governor was accused of misusing the verse by Rizieq Shihab, the FPI’s leader.

The verse was posted in many mosques across the city and religious preachers exhorted the faithful to reject Ahok on the basis of religion, which many apparently did. Some mosques said they wouldn’t extend Muslim burial services to those who supported the governor

The FPI and HTI, supported by traditional politicians like Prabowo, fomented a long series of rallies by thousands of seemingly outraged Muslims as Ahok’s political opponents capitalized on the situation. Although he finished as the front-runner in a February primary election, he was soundly defeated in the April 19 runoff by Anies 58 percent to 42 percent.

It remains to be seen whether Anies will be effective in Jakarta, which was a city in utter chaos prior to the ascendancy of Jokowi as governor in 2012. Political figures, many of them retired generals or traditional politicians allowed it to deteriorate shockingly.

There are massive infrastructure projects underway, including the city's first subway, and many observers fear that a new opposition governor will slow things down in order to hurt the president ahead of his reelection bid in 2019.