Jakarta’s Christian governor has been sentenced to two years in jail for blasphemy against Islam on Tuesday, a harsher than expected ruling in a trial that was seen as a test of religious tolerance in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation.
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 blow to 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 south 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?,”
Thousands of police were deployed in the capital early on Tuesday in case clashes broke out, but there was no immediate sign of any violence after the court’s verdict.
Purnama told the court he would appeal the ruling.
There was shock among his supporters outside the court and some wept openly.
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.
Hardline Islamist groups had called for the maximum penalty possible over comments by Purnama that they said were insulting to the Islamic holy book, the Koran.
Purnama denied wrongdoing, though he apologized for comments he made last year criticizing his opponents’ use of the Koran in political campaigning ahead of the election for governor.
Purnama lost his bid for re-election to a Muslim rival, Anies Baswedan, in an April run-off – after the most divisive and religiously charged election in recent years. He will hand over to Baswedan in October.
Analysts say the radical Islamist groups that organized mass protests against Purnama had a decisive impact on the outcome of the election.
Rights group fear they are in the ascendant in a country where most Muslims practise a moderate form of Islam and which is home to sizeable communities of Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, and people who adhere to traditional beliefs.
The government has been criticized for not doing enough to protect religious minorities but Widodo had urged restraint over the trial and called for all sides to respect the legal process.
His government said on Monday it would take legal steps to disband Hizb ut-Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), a group that seeks to establish an Islamic caliphate, because its activities were creating social tensions and threatening security.