Indonesian prosecutors urge light sentence in blasphemy case

Persecution | Recommendation comes a day after Jakarta’s Christian governor loses election to Muslim opponent
by Julia A. Seymour
Posted 4/20/17, 10:23 am

Prosecutors in the blasphemy case against Indonesian Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama are asking a Jakarta court to give him two years probation for the offense.

Today’s sentencing hearing took place one day after Ahok lost Jakarta’s gubernatorial race. Millions of people went to the polls Wednesday and elected former Cabinet minister Anies Baswedan as Jakarta’s next governor.

Baswedan, a Muslim, defeated Ahok, an ethnic Chinese Christian, in the closely watched election many considered a bellwether for Indonesia’s reputation for tolerance and moderate Islam. 

Ahok conceded the race after “quick counts” by 10 research companies showed Baswedan winning between 55 and 60 percent of votes with more than 80 percent of ballots counted.

He was the first ethnic Chinese Christian to hold such high office in Indonesia. Before the accusation of insulting Islam, Ahok’s popularity soared. Jakarta Globe crowned him “Man of the Year” in 2015, calling him Indonesia’s “shooting star.”

But conservative Muslims forcefully opposed Ahok beginning last year, accusing him of blasphemy after the release of an edited video from a campaign speech. In his remarks, Ahok took on critics who interpreted Quranic verses to mean Muslims could not vote for a non-Muslim politician. 

From the start, Ahok proclaimed his innocence. On April 10, the last day of his trial before it adjourned until after the election, he said he had been slandered.

At today’s hearing, prosecutors recommended the relatively light sentence due to “mitigating” factors but said any new offense during that time would be punished with a year in jail.

“Ahok acted politely during hearings, participated in the development of Jakarta, and the public disturbance [he is accused of causing] was partly due to a person named Buni Yani,” state prosecutor Ali Mukartono said, referring to the man who uploaded the video to the internet.

Any sentence of less than five years in prison would allow Ahok to continue to pursue political office. He can respond to the prosecution’s recommendation at the next hearing on April 25.

Ahok lost the runoff election in spite of a last-minute endorsement from Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the country’s largest Muslim organization. NU’s support stemmed from fears over the rising influence of conservative Islam in Indonesia, according to US News & World Report.

Hardliners staged repeated protests in 2016 calling for Ahok’s imprisonment and death, even though Indonesia’s maximum penalty for blasphemy is five years in prison. 

His opponent, Baswedan, capitalized on the backlash and courted the support of conservative clerics and figures on the radical fringe who opposed electing a non-Muslim.

“I voted for Anies [Baswedan] not just because I would sin if choosing a non-Muslim leader, but because I’m sure Jakarta will be better without Ahok,” said Annisa Karolina, a 29-year-old restaurant cashier.

Bonar Tigor Naispospos of Jakarta’s Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace called the use of religion as a political weapon “a challenge for Indonesia’s democracy.”

“It shows to me that Islamization is deepening in society, especially in urban areas and cities,” he said. Naispospos worried the election victory would embolden hardline Muslims to exert even more pressure on local and federal government in Indonesia.

Ahok will serve his remaining six months in office and expressed hope for quickly accomplishing his goals before Baswedan takes over.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Julia A. Seymour

Julia has worked as a writer in the Washington, D.C., area since 2005 and was a fall 2012 participant in a World Journalism Institute mid-career class conducted by WORLD editor in chief Marvin Olasky in Asheville, N.C. Follow Julia on Twitter @SteakandaBible.

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