Jakarta’s governor arrives in court for his verdict and sentence in his blasphemy trial. Photo: Getty Images

In a verdict that surprised many, an Indonesian court has sentenced Jakarta’s outgoing governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as ‘Ahok’, to two years in prison for blasphemy. The sentence is higher than the prosecutors had asked for.

The news was welcomed by Islamic hardliners who had gathered outside of the court, cheering and shouting “God is greatest!” Supporters of the governor were stunned, with some breaking down in tears. Andi, a devoted Muslim, said she felt heartbroken. “He was such a good man and great leader… He didn’t care what religion people were. Now he has been framed,” she said. Thousands of police were out on the streets to prevent clashes between Ahok’s supporters and opponents.

The court case was seen as politically motivated, the ruling illustrative of the growing religious intolerance in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation.

Charles Santiago, chairman of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) who is also a member of the Malaysian Parliament, criticised the verdict: “Indonesia was thought to be a regional leader in terms of democracy and openness. This decision places that position in jeopardy and raises concerns about Indonesia’s future as an open, tolerant, diverse society,” he said.

Thomas Müller, persecution analyst for World Watch Research, added that it reminds the Christian minority as well as all other religious minorities of the fact that the accusation of blasphemy is a powerful tool in the hands of radical groups: “If even a well-connected public figure as Ahok cannot escape trumped-up charges, how can normal citizens do so?”

Ahok, a Chinese Christian, was charged with blasphemy after accusing his political opponents of using Qur’anic verses to stop Muslims from voting for him in the bid for re-election as Jakarta’s governor.

A day after he lost the election to his Muslim contender, Anies Rasiyd Baswedan, prosecutors downgraded the blasphemy charges against him and recommend that, if he was found guilty, Ahok would serve no prison time. They suggested two years of probation with a possible one-year jail term if he committed a crime during that period.

They recommended this lighter sentence because of his “significant” contributions to the Indonesian capital. Before the Christian governor was charged with insulting Islam in one of his speeches, he enjoyed a large opinion-poll lead due to his determination to clean up traffic-clogged, polluted Jakarta.

The judge, however, used the Penal Code 156a for blasphemy instead of the Penal Code 156 for “expressing hostile feelings or hatred towards a particular group” that was used by the prosecutor.

The head judge, Dwiarso Budi Santiarto, told the court: “Mr 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. As part of a religious society, the defendant should be careful to not use words with negative connotations regarding the symbols of religions, including the religion of the defendant himself.”

One of his colleagues, Abdul Rosyad, added that the reasons for the stiff sentence included that “the defendant didn’t feel guilt, [and] the defendant’s act had caused anxiety and hurt Muslims”.

The governor was taken into custody immediately after the verdict was read out. His deputy, Djarot Saiful Hidayat, will govern Jakarta until the term ends in October. Ahok’s lawyer said they will file an appeal against the verdict.

Islamic groups said they will call for a harsher sentence as they find the two-year imprisonment too light. Under Indonesian law, blasphemy is punishable by up to five years in prison.

The Frankfurter Allgemeine, a German Daily, noted that the Court’s decision was “a victory for the advocates of political Islam” and had set the country on a path towards the presidential elections in 2019 under the growing influence of radical Islam. It expressed the hope that the moderates, under President Widodo, would be able to keep the country together.