Jakarta’s Christian Governor To Face Blasphemy Trial

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Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, governor of Indonesia's capital Jakarta
Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, governor of Indonesia's capital Jakarta

The case involving Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama has caused uproar across the country in recent weeks and is being seen by some as a test of Indonesia’s commitment to religious tolerance and pluralism.

The Christian governor of Jakarta, the capital of the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation, has been named a suspect in a case of alleged blasphemy, Indonesian police announced on Wednesday.

“Police have decided to declare Basuki Tjahaja Purnama a suspect and bar him from travelling abroad,” national police chief detective Ari Dono Sukmanto said on Wednesday morning.

“After long discussions, we reached a decision that the case should be tried in an open court,” he added.

If found guilty under Indonesia’s 1965 blasphemy law Ahok will face a maximum of five years in jail.

Ahok provoked the ire of hardliners after he cited the Al Maidah 51 verse from the Qur’an during a campaign visit to the Thousand Islands in September. He said the verse had been used to deceive voters and justify the assertion that Muslims should not be led by non-Muslims.

Jakarta blasphemy protests
Jakarta blasphemy protests

The governor later apologised, saying it was not his intention to cause any offence.

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However, an edited version of those comments was subsequently circulated online, changed in a way to make the governor’s comments appear more offensive, angering hardliners further.

As a Christian, and the first ethnic Chinese governor of Jakarta, Ahok is somewhat of an anomaly in Indonesia’s political scene.

The capital’s willingness to be led by a man who represents a double minority has in the past been hailed a symbol of progress and pluralism, the latter a virtue enshrined in the Indonesian constitution.

In a country where 90% of its more than 240 million people follow Islam, the national motto is, Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, or unity in diversity.

But following the police announcement that Ahok is likely to now face trial, Andreas Harsono from Human Rights Watch fears he will be found guilty.

“I have studied more than 200 blasphemy cases in Indonesia since it was written by President Sukarno in 1965. Over this 50-year period I think there was only one case where the suspect was acquitted,” he said. “I don’t think Ahok can survive this prosecution, he is very likely to end up in jail.”

The last acquittal on charges of blasphemy happened to a newspaper editor in 1968, said Harsono.

In 2012, Alexander Aan, a 30-year-old civil servant from Sumatra, was sentenced under the same blasphemy law to two-and-a-half years in prison after he declared on his Facebook page he was an atheist.

The declaration of atheism was deemed offensive to Islam – one of Indonesia’s six official religions, together with Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism.

“I think it is going to be difficult for Ahok to defend himself. Why? This is a law, in Bahasa Indonesia, we call it pasal karet, a rubber article. It is always political,” Harsono said.

The Chinese Christian governor is campaigning for re-election this February and while drawing criticism – including for evictions and a controversial reclamation project – he has been seen as the frontrunner.

The political stakes for the gubernatorial race are high, with big political players backing the three pairs of candidates, which include former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, whose son Agus is running.

The Gerindra party, headed by former military general Prabowo Subianto, is backing the third pair headed by former education minister Anies Baswedan.

Ahok, who succeeded President Joko Widodo as governor of Jakarta in 2014, has vowed that he would continue his campaign regardless of the investigation.

The hashtag #kamiAhok, or “we are Ahok” was trending countrywide on Wednesday morning, with support flowing in for the beleaguered governor.

Noted Indonesian filmmaker Joko Anwar, who has more than 1 million followers on Twitter praised the governor as a good man.

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