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Tuesday, May 9, 2017, 18:23

Jakarta's Christian governor jailed for blasphemy against Islam

By Reuters

Jakarta's Christian governor jailed for blasphemy against Islam
Jakarta Governor Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama, center, is escorted by prosecutors as enters the court room for his sentencing hearing in Jakarta, Indonesia, May 9, 2017. (Bay Ismoyo/Pool Photo via AP)

JAKARTA – Jakarta's Christian governor was sentenced to two years in jail for blasphemy against Islam on Tuesday, a harsher than expected ruling that is being seen as a blow to religious tolerance in Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim-majority nation.

If someone like Ahok, the governor of the capital, backed by the country’s largest political party, ally of the president, can be jailed on groundless accusations, what will others do?

Andreas Harsono, Human Rights Watch

The guilty verdict comes amid concern about the growing influence of Islamist groups, who organized mass demonstrations during a tumultuous election campaign that ended with Basuki Tjahaja Purnama losing his bid for another term as governor.

President Joko Widodo was an ally of Purnama, an ethnic-Chinese Christian who is popularly known as "Ahok", and the verdict will be a setback for a government that has sought to quell radical groups and soothe investors' concerns that the country's secular values were at risk.

As thousands of supporters and opponents waited outside, the head judge of the Jakarta court, Dwiarso Budi Santiarto, said Purnama was "found to have legitimately and convincingly conducted a criminal act of blasphemy, and because of that we have imposed two years of imprisonment".

Andreas Harsono of Human Rights Watch described the verdict as "a huge setback" for Indonesia's record of tolerance and for minorities.

"If someone like Ahok, the governor of the capital, backed by the country's largest political party, ally of the president, can be jailed on groundless accusations, what will others do?," Harsono said.

The governor was taken to an East Jakarta prison after the verdict and his lawyer Tommy Sihotang said he would remain there despite his appeal process unless a higher court suspended it.

Purnama told the court he would appeal the ruling.

If Purnama's appeals failed, he would be prevented from holding public office under Indonesian law because the offence carried a maximum penalty of five years, said Simon Butt of the Centre for Asian and Pacific Law at the University of Sydney.

Home affairs minister Tjahjo Kumolo said Purnama's deputy would take over in the interim.

Prosecutors had called for a suspended one-year jail sentence on charges of hate speech. The maximum sentence is four years in prison for hate speech and five years for blasphemy.

While on a work trip last year, Purnama said political rivals were deceiving people by using a verse in the Koran to say Muslims should not be led by a non-Muslim.

An incorrectly subtitled video of his comments later went viral, helping spark huge demonstrations that ultimately resulted in him being bought to trial.

READ MORE: Pollsters: Muslim candidate wins Jakarta election

Jakarta's Christian governor jailed for blasphemy against Islam
Supporters of Jakarta Governor Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama hold flowers during a rally outside the court where his sentencing hearing is held in Jakarta, Indonesia, May 9, 2017. (Dita Alangkara / AP)
Purnama denied wrongdoing, though he apologized for comments he made last year criticising his opponents' use of the Koran in political campaigning ahead of an election for governor of Jakarta, the country's capital.
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