JAKARTA: Jakarta’s Christian governor was jailed for two years Tuesday after being found guilty of blasphemy, in a shock decision that has stoked concerns over rising religious intolerance in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation.
Islamic hardliners outside the Jakarta court cheered and shouted “God is greatest!” as news came through that Basuki Tjahaja Purnama would be sent to prison, a surprisingly harsh punishment after prosecutors recommended only probation.
Purnama, Jakarta’s first non-Muslim governor for half a century and its first ethnic Chinese leader, looked calm when the verdict was announced and said he would appeal, as some of his supporters in court burst into tears.
The 50-year-old was hauled into court last year to face trial on charges of insulting the Koran while campaigning for re-election, after the blasphemy accusations sparked a series of mass protests in Jakarta spearheaded by radical groups and encouraged by his rivals.
Tuesday’s jail sentence and his loss last month to a Muslim challenger in the Jakarta vote, which he had once been favourite to win, has fuelled fears that hardliners are growing increasingly influential and that the country’s much-vaunted tolerant brand of Islam is under threat.
“It’s another big step in the slow decline of religious freedom in Indonesia,” said Andreas Harsono, Indonesia researcher for Human Rights Watch, after Purnama was jailed.
“If someone of that political stature can be charged and sent to prison, what will happen to others?”
Indonesia, 90 percent of whose 255 million people are Muslim, has a long tradition of pluralistic values and is home to substantial populations of Christians, Muslims and Buddhists. But there has been a rise in attacks on minorities in recent years.
The five-judge panel at the Jakarta court found Purnama guilty of blasphemy after a months-long trial, in a case criticised as politically motivated.
Announcing the verdict, presiding judge Dwiarso Budi Santiarto said Purnama was “convincingly guilty of committing blasphemy and is sentenced to two years in prison” and ordered him to be detained.
Blasphemy carries a maximum jail term of five years in Indonesia but the sentence was a surprise as judges typically follow the recommendation of prosecutors in criminal cases.
The prosecutors last month urged judges to hand Purnama two years of probation, with a possible one-year jail term if he committed a crime during that period.
Outside the court, hundreds of Islamic radicals wearing white Muslim skullcaps celebrated as they heard about the jail sentence.
“Thank God, he should be jailed — this is right. He has insulted us,” Bachtiar, 38, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, told AFP.
After the verdict, the governor was taken to a Jakarta prison but it was unclear whether he would remain in jail or be released later to allow him to file his appeal.
Authorities said they had begun the process of dismissing Purnama from his post, which he was due to vacate in October anyway, and making his deputy acting governor.
Despite the trial, Purnama retained a loyal following in Jakarta, due to his determination to clean up the traffic-clogged and polluted city.
Supporters rallied outside court as the verdict was announced and flocked to the jail where Purnama was taken, chanting “Free Ahok”.
Tobias Basuki, an analyst from Jakarta think-tank the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said the shock decision could have been driven by pressure from Purnama’s political foes on the notoriously corrupt judiciary to remove the governor from power as soon as possible.
The controversy began in September when Purnama, known for his outspoken style, offended Muslims after he quoted a passage from the Quran during his re-election campaign.
He insinuated that his opponents had used a Quranic verse to trick people into voting against him. Some interpret the verse as meaning Muslims should not vote for non-Muslim leaders.
An edited version of his speech went viral online, sparking outrage.
Critics want the country’s blasphemy laws overhauled. The legislation was rarely used during the 32-year rule of strongman Suharto, but in recent years has been exploited to persecute minorities, rights groups say.