Jakarta ex-governor set for release after blasphemy sentence

Basuki Tjahaja Purnama is a popular politician who won praise for trying to clean up the traffic-clogged megacity and clamp down on corruption. (Reuters pic)

JAKARTA: Jakarta’s former governor is set to be released from prison Thursday, nearly two years after he was convicted on blasphemy charges that fanned fears over religious intolerance in the world’s biggest Muslim-majority nation.

Basuki Tjahaja Purnama – the Indonesian capital’s first non-Muslim governor in half a century and its first ethnic Chinese leader – had been a popular politician who won praise for trying to clean up the traffic-clogged megacity and clamp down on corruption.

But his downfall came quickly after comments he made on the campaign trail during a re-election bid saw him accused of insulting Islam.

His filmed remarks which went viral online sparked mass protests in Jakarta, spearheaded by radical groups opposed to a non-Muslim leader and encouraged by his political rivals.

He lost the election to a Muslim challenger and was then sentenced to two years’ jail in May 2017.

It was an unusually harsh sentence – prosecutors had only recommended probation for the now 52-year-old, best known by his nickname Ahok.

His case drew international headlines and a wave of criticism including from the United Nations which urged the country of 260 million to revise its decades-old blasphemy law.

The charge against Purnama centred on a remark he made to voters about his Muslim rivals using a Koranic verse to trick people into voting against him, which judges ruled amounted to blasphemy against Islam.

The huge demonstrations calling for Ahok’s jailing fuelled concerns about the growing influence of religious hardliners and that the Southeast country’s much-vaunted tolerant brand of Islam was under threat.

Indonesia’s blasphemy law states that anyone found guilty of “expressing feelings of hostility” towards religion can be jailed for up to five years.

It applies to any of six officially recognised religions, including Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism, but most prosecutions are brought against people accused of blaspheming Islam, which is followed by nearly 90% of the population.

Among them was an ethnic Chinese Buddhist woman found guilty in August of insulting Islam for asking her neighbourhood mosque to lower its sound system. She was sentenced to 18 months in jail.

The woman’s comments about the mosque noise triggered riots in 2016 that saw angry Muslim mobs ransack Buddhist temples.

Some ethnic Chinese in the area fled in fear.