Indonesian Police Clear Controversial Cleric in Sex Case

The Indonesian police have suspended investigations into two cases involving hardline Islamic group leader Rizieq Shihab, sparking speculation that political pressure was behind the decision. Rizieq announced earlier this week via the Internet from Saudi Arabia that he had been cleared through a letter of investigation termination warrant, known as an SP3 letter issued by the police.

The Islamic Defenders Front, known by its Indonesian acronym FPI, has long been believed to be close to top police figures and in fact is thought to have carried out below-the-radar enforcement activities for them, trashing nightclubs, attacking apostate religious figures and harassing scantily clad women. They have often been criticized as being little more than thugs. Many believe the FPI had grown so powerful that it had gone off the reservation until the fundamentalist cleric was caught up in a sex scandal involving a married woman. The release of the pictures may have its own political implications.

Rizuiq fled for Saudi Arabia last year after a video went viral involving him with Firza Husein, a woman who is married to someone else. The suspension of the case against a powerful religious leader stands in marked contrast to a story in the June 22 Asia Sentinel that described mobs descending on unmarried couples caught cohabiting, stripping them naked, beating them and dousing them with garbage.

Accompanied by his wife and five daughters, Rizieq expressed his gratitude to his organization, his lawyers, and the Indonesian police.

"To the Government of the Republic of Indonesia, especially the Police of the Republic of Indonesia, we express our appreciation, where they have delivered an SP3 letter directly to our lawyers to be delivered directly to me in the holy city of Mecca," Rizieq said in a video uploaded on FPI’s Youtube account.

Rizieq's sex scandal got its start in late January 2017, when screenshots of pornographic conversations and photos of the fundamentalist Muslim leader and Firza via WhatsApp spread on the Internet, leading to public questions over the moral standing of the firebrand cleric. The conversation was first disseminated by unknown individuals on a site called, (translated as “ballad of love rizieq”).

A police investigation named the two as suspects. Rizieq ducked interrogations several times, then fled for Mecca under the pretext of wanting to worship and continue his education. He has not returned to Indonesia.

Rizieq has argued that he has been vilified and "criminalized" for being the main figure behind the defeat of Basuki Tjahaja "Ahok" Purnama, an ethnic Chinese Christian, in the 2016 Jakarta gubernatorial election, in which dubious accusations of blasphemy played a major role. Ahok is an ally of President Joko Widodo and his party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP).

Rizieq and the FPI as well as several other Islamic organizations mobilized Muslims to follow the series of demonstrations that brought down Ahok, widely considered Jakarta’s most able and honest governor in recent history. The Muslims demanded that the deposed governor be tried on charges of blasphemy against Islam. The biggest demonstration took place on 2 December 2016 – later known as the 212 movement – followed by hundreds of thousands of Muslims in the area around the National Monument. Ahok was ultimately sentenced to two years in prison.

In addition to the sex scandal, Rizieq has repeatedly been the subject of complaints to the police, mostly for harassing other religions and tribes. In mid-2017, Rizieq several times proposed "reconciliation" to the government and PDIP to stop the various cases that ensnared him, to no avail. On April 22, 11 clerics involved in the 212 movement met with Jokowi, as the president is known, in a closed-door meeting at the Bogor Palace, requesting that what they called "criminalization" of some religious figures including Rizieq be stopped.

Photos of the meeting leaked to the public. The government denied the scholars' requests because, it was said, they were not authorized to intervene in the legal process.

Besides the sex scandal, the police killed a second complaint against Rizieq involving an alleged insult to the state’s official foundational philosophy, pancasila, and the country’s founding president Soekarno in a speech in front of his supporters two years ago. But police said in May that the investigation had been killed because of lack of evidence.

The FPI and the Police

The Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) in a report titled "After Ahok: The Islamist Agenda in Indonesia," said that since its founding in August 1998 in the tumultuous months following the collapse of Suharto’s 32-year rule, the FPI, led by Rizieq and some 20 like-minded Jakarta Muslim clerics, originally had close links to the security forces, with senior military and police officers in attendance at its founding ceremony.

The group quickly became part of the army-backed civilian militia known as Pam Swakarsa (Voluntary Security Guards), formed to counter pro-reform demonstrators in late 1998. Its early years were focused on raids on entertainment centers in close coordination with the police, from whom it got both logistical and financial support.

"FPI' leaders have called for the restoration of a constitutional clause that would oblige Indonesian Muslims to obey Islamic law, but it is generally more focused on alliances with politicians and members of security forces to achieve short-term goals and material reward," said IPAC in the report, published on April 6, 2018.

The FPI gradually became more independent but still was on call as needed to provide security for demonstrations, trials or police operations. Over time, as Islamist civil society organizations grew in political confidence, the FPI joined various local forums and fronts to mobilize demonstrators to demand government action on everything from removing statues deemed offensive to Islam to banning the Ahmadiyah sect, to closing “unauthorized” churches, to stopping a Lady Gaga concert.

"Until the 212 movement, the police saw FPI as more friend than foe, despite occasional clashes during demonstrations, and its services were particularly valued in the fight against terrorism," IPAC said.

The mass anti-Ahok rallies, however, changed the relationship. FPI was no longer a mere civilian auxiliary paid to keep a crowd in order. Together with its 212 allies, it was now setting the agenda – the arrest and prosecution of Ahok – and forcing the police to comply. That shift set the stage for the police to move against Rizieq.

"FPI leader Habib Rizieq Shihab used the anti-Ahok campaign to catapult himself into a position of unprecedented political prominence and seemed on the verge of becoming an important broker for the 2019 elections. But he also alienated his long-term allies in the police," according to the report.

Speculation of a Political Deal

Speculation has arisen that the decision to cease the prosecution of the cases against Rizieq is politically motivated ahead of presidential election in 2019. Moreover, the policy was taken almost simultaneously with the termination of a religious blasphemy case against Rachmawati Soekarnoputri, Sukarno’s daughter, and the sister of PDIP leader Megawati Sukarno. That has sparked conjecture that the police killed the case over Rizieq's sex tapes in exchange for killing Rachmawati's blasphemy charges.

Criminal Law Expert from Trisakti University Abdul Fikar Hajar said he suspects the SP3 was issued to keep the political situation stable. Moreover, Indonesia will hold simultaneous regional elections in 2018 and presidential elections in 2019.

"A case can be stopped for the sake of law, also can be done in the public interest," said Fikar. "Because if a case is tried, it is feared that it would disturb the public interest.

Meanwhile, an Islamic political expert from the Center for Political Studies (Puskapol) University of Indonesia, Hurriyah, said it is possible that the SP3 issued is part of a win-win solution between clerics of 212 movement with the government.

"The cessation of the case is not abrupt, as far earlier, there have been a series of attempts by clerics of 212 movement to lobby the government to stop the case, from the meetings in Bogor Palace and letters sent to the coordinating ministers of politics, law and security (Wiranto), "said Hurriyah.

The termination of the case, she said, can also be seen as the government's efforts to gain sympathy and political support from the conservative groups that are the basis of Rizieq's supporters, given the growing opinion that Jokowi's government policies are unfriendly to certain Islamic groups.

"This perception is certainly expected to be detrimental for political support for Jokowi in the 2019 election," she added.

For Rizieq and his supporters, the decision to drop the case allows the cleric to return to Indonesia without worrying about the legal process, as well as conferring innocence on the cleric.

For Jokowi, the acquittal can improve the image of a government that had been regarded as hostile to Islamic groups, as well as gain sympathy from Rizieq's supporters.

"There is strong possibility that this decision could reduce the critical attitude and even hostility towards the government that has been vociferously voiced by Rizieq," she said.

But National Police spokesman Brigadier Pol Mohammad Iqbal said there was no intervention by police chief Tito Karnavian and the government in stopping the Rizieq case. The order was issued after the police held "a case expose" at the request of Rizieq's lawyer, he said. The investigators, he said, concluded that there was not enough evidence to continue the case because the uploader of the scandalous content has never been named.

"This is all on the authority of the investigator, but the case can be reopened if new evidence is found," Iqbal said this week.

President Jokowi also denied interfering with Rizieq's legal process. "There is no intervention," said Jokowi.

Ainur Rohmah is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel