Richard Lloyd Parry, Asia Editor
May 10 2017, 12:01am, The Times
The Christian governor of Jakarta has been jailed for two years for blasphemy in an unexpected court victory for conservative Muslims in Indonesia, the world’s biggest Islamic nation.
Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, an ethnic Chinese Christian, best known by his nickname Ahok, was immediately taken into detention after the verdict. As his supporters wept outside the court members of hardline Islamic organisations shouted: “God is great!”
His lawyers said that they would appeal against the conviction which stemmed from a speech that Mr Basuki gave last year while campaigning for election to the Jakarta governorship. He was defeated in April but remains in office until October.
He had joked about political opponents who cited a Koranic verse, Al Maidah 51, in arguing that a Christian should not hold high office. He said that they had “deceived” their audience, a statement which he argued was directed at his opponents, not towards Islam as a faith. But his words were taken by antagonists as a blasphemous commentary on the Koran by a “kafir”, or non-Muslim.
Mr Basuki apologised for causing offence but the outrage against him grew and culminated in large and sometimes violent protests organised by Islamic organisations. At one rally, an estimated 150,000 people demanded his resignation and prosecution. One man died, and dozens of police were injured in battles close to the presidential palace.
Today’s verdict is all the more shocking because prosecutors had only sought a sentence of probation. “In his speech, the defendant considered Al Maidah verse 51 as a tool for lying to the people,” one of the judges, Abdul Rosyad, said. “With such an interpretation, the defendant has degraded, harassed and insulted Al Maidah verse 51.”
The trial of Mr Basuki has been at the centre of an intensifying political struggle between moderate and secular Indonesians and supporters of conservative Islam, in which the latter have increasingly come out on top.
Mr Basuki was deputy to the former governor of Jakarta, Joko Widodo, who left the job in 2014 after becoming president of Indonesia. Despite not being elected, Ahok was popular among ordinary Jakartans for his practicality, and his direct manner of speech.
After the campaign against him by conservative Islamic groups he lost the election by a decisive margin to Anies Baswedan, a Muslim and former minister. Mr Anies will take over in October. If Mr Basuki remains in prison his duties will be carried out by his deputy.
“This is bad news for Indonesian minorities,” said Andreas Harsono of Human Rights Watch. “If someone like Ahok, the governor of the capital, backed by the largest political party, ally of the president, can be jailed on groundless accusations, what will others do?”