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Indonesia's Governor Has Been Found Guilty of Blasphemy

Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as Ahok, was sentenced to two years in prison.
May 9, 2017, 5:54am
Photo by Darren Whiteside/Reuters

Jakarta's outgoing governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama was found guilty of blasphemy and sentenced to two years behind bars on Tuesday in a verdict that has left the country deeply divided. The governor, a man known as Ahok, said he will file an appeal in two week's time.

The panel of judges' surprise decision came weeks after prosecutors asked for a lesser charge of "provoking hostility"—a charge that would've carried a sentence of two years' probation. The judges instead ruled on the original charge, which carried a maximum sentence of five years in prison, finding that Ahok had committed blasphemy when he criticized those who used "Al Maidah: 51" to argue that Muslims couldn't vote for a non-Muslim leader in an election.

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Islamists gathered outside the courtroom cheered the verdict on Tuesday, shouting "Allahu Akbar" as the news cameras rolled. The verdict was seen as a victory by the country's emboldened hardliners, who have been calling for Ahok's arrest for months in a series of massive, and, at times, chaotic, protests outside Istana Merdeka (the Presidential Palace).

But the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a hardline group at the center of the protests, told the local media that the sentence wasn't harsh enough. The FPI's Novel Chaidir Bamukmin, a witness in the case, told suara.com that "we object to the ruling because it's far from what we expected."

"This case has sparked national outcry, resulted in [indirect] deaths, and the criminalization and 'makarisasi' ['treasonous'] arrests of ulemas," Novel said.

Ahok's supporters, many wearing his trademark plaid shirt, were tearful as the news broke.

It's a verdict observers see as the latest blow for pluralism and tolerance in this Muslim-majority nation. Indonesia constitutionally protects the practice of six religions, but this court case, and a rise in sectarian and racially charged sentiment during the recent Jakarta governor's race have thrown the country's religious divisions into stark contrast.

Ahok is both ethnically Chinese and Christian, two factors that have long chafed the country's Islamist hardliners. Religion and ethnicity boiled to the surface during the heated governor's race. Now, this verdict has again left the country divided along religious and political lines. Ahok's supporters see the verdict as a dangerous win for the country's rising hardline Islamists. His critics argue that the ruling is a legal issue, explaining that Ahok broke the law and, therefore, had to be jailed.

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But the law itself isn't without controversy. Indonesia's blasphemy law has a long history of being used for political means, according to Human Rights Watch's Indonesian researcher Andreas Harsono. The law, which was drafted by Soekarno in the twilight of his rule, was used eight times during Suharto's reign. But during the 10 years Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was in power, the law was used more than 200 times, he explained.

Harsono, a longtime critic of the blasphemy law, previously told VICE Indonesia that Ahok would likely be jailed for blasphemy, explaining that "no one has ever been acquitted of the blasphemy law, not since 1968, I think."

Harsono told VICE Indonesia that Tuesday's verdict set a dangerous precedent for the future use of the blasphemy law, opening the door for its wider implementation.

"Politically, Ahok is the most prominent victim of the religious blasphemy law since it was first drafted in January of 1965," Harsono told VICE Indonesia. "He is not only the governor of Jakarta, the largest and most-complex city in Indonesia, but he is also an ally of President Jokowi.

"The blasphemy law is a very bad law. Democratic states shouldn't have laws on blasphemy. [And] if someone with the political weight of Ahok can be imprisoned by this bad law, I can't even imagine what it will be like for the other citizens in Indonesia."

But others believe the verdict was just. The hashtag #AhokHarusDipenjara (#AhokMustBeJailed) was trending in the moments after the verdict was announced. "We don't hate the kafir, or the ethnic Chinese, et cetera, but we are fighting to uphold justice #AhokHarusDipenjara," wrote one Twitter user.

Ahok was transported to Cipinang penitentiary, in East Jakarta, shortly after the verdict was announced. The case will now be kicked up to the Jakarta High Court as Ahok's lawyers start the long appeals process.

How did we get here? Watch our documentary on the Jakarta election, which covers Ahok's blasphemy trial at length, below.