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Blasphemy Conviction for Jakarta Governor Seen As Blow for Religious Freedom

Jakarta Governor Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama, center, talks to his lawyers after his sentencing hearing at a court in Jakarta, Indonesia, May 9, 2017.

Many Indonesians thought a silver lining of Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama’s resounding defeat in the 2017 election for Jakarta governor would be a lenient sentence in his concurrent trial for blasphemy. Indeed, even the prosecution suggested just one year of probation, with no jail time, after the election last month.

They were wrong.

Ahok was sentenced to two years in jail Tuesday, a shocking verdict that would entail his immediate dismissal as acting governor of Jakarta.

The Chinese-Christian politician was accused of blasphemy during his re-election campaign last year when a video surfaced of him quoting a verse in the Quran to prove to his supporters that there were no restrictions on Muslims voting for non-Muslim politicians.

Ahok said he intends to appeal the case, but his bargaining position is weak given the severity of the sentence. In the 24 hours following the verdict, his supporters have swarmed City Hall and Cipinang Prison to protest and show their support.

“He dared to work for Indonesia despite being a minority,” said novelist Okky Madasari, speaking outside the prison. “They called him a ‘dog’ and a ‘kaffir from China.’”

Supporters gathered again at City Hall early Wednesday, dressed in the national colors of red and white.

Quirks of the Indonesian judiciary

One way to put the surprisingly harsh verdict in context is the phenomenon of “judicial defiance” in Indonesia, according to Melissa Crouch, a University of New South Wales researcher.

“Indonesia’s judges are fiercely protective of their independence to a point that it now borders on a gross lack of accountability,” writes Crouch. Having acquired a hard-won centralization of all judicial affairs in the Supreme Court, the court is loathe to take any directives from other ministries or legal actors, according to Crouch.

After Ahok’s loss, the prosecution tried to shift its charge from Article 156a of the judicial code, which pertains to religious offenses, to Article 156, which addresses general “hostility, hatred or humiliation to any or some of the Indonesian people.”

A religiously motivated offense is more serious, and carries a maximum sentence of five years in jail, which Ahok’s hardline critics have been calling for since November.

The court rejected this and charged him under Article 156a anyway. It even called the controversial hardliner Habib Rizieq Shihab as an “expert witness” in the trial. Shihab leads the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), which organized the enormous public rallies against Ahok late last year.

“The remarkable thing is not that Rizieq was mentioned in the verdict, but that the court accepted him as an ‘expert witness,’” said Marcus Mietzner, an Indonesia expert at Australian National University. “This accelerated his already rapid mainstreaming — a process he clearly relishes and supports.”

The judges who delivered the verdict added that Ahok acted deliberately and without remorse.

Blasphemy and political Islam

Beyond the fact of a stubborn judiciary, experts have said the case illustrates how blasphemy laws are inherently problematic.

“It is a sign that as long as the blasphemy law exists, it will be misused for political and religiously exclusivist campaigns,” said Mietzner.

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly said that criminalizing blasphemy is a violation of human and especially minority rights.

The Ahok verdict is “exhibit A of the law’s danger and the urgent need for its repeal,” said Phelim Kine, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, in a statement.

Several international bodies, including the United States State Department, concurred. "While we respect Indonesia’s democratic institutions, we uniformly oppose blasphemy laws anywhere in the world as they jeopardize fundamental freedoms, including the freedoms of religion and expression," said a spokesperson for the State Department's east Asia and Pacific bureau.

“The Ahok verdict endorsed an Islamist narrative of blasphemy,” wrote Harsono, in The Guardian. He noted that one of the judges Tuesday recited, in Arabic, the Quran verse that got Ahok in hot water: Al-Maidah 51, which states that Muslims should not elect non-Muslim leaders. Ahok riffed on that verse last September in a stump speech to fishermen in the Thousand Islands.

The Supreme Court also reaffirmed the idea that non-Muslims should not comment on the Quran.

Enduring popularity

Although Ahok was never elected in Jakarta — he become governor after his boss, Joko Widodo, vacated the governorship when he won the 2014 presidential race — he has enjoyed historic popularity for his brisk demeanor and efficient policies to make the metropolis cleaner and safer.

It’s possible that the appeals process, which is closed to the public, will result in a lesser sentence for Ahok.

“There is no doubt that there was public and social pressure on the judges,” said Mietzner. “Four of them were Muslim, who would not only have been subject to pressure by Islamist groups, but also from their families, mosque leaders, neighborhood circles and other social environments in which they are embedded.”

Regardless of the eventual sentence, prominent political scientist Arbi Sanit said Tuesday’s verdict stands as a potent win for rising Islamist politics in Indonesia.

“Ahok was defeated by an absolute majority who claimed the sovereignty of the Muslim God,” he told VOA, “so that the arena of the earthly state was subordinated to that of religion.”