Jewel Topsfield and Karuni Rompies, Jakarta – In a shock verdict the Christian Governor of Jakarta has been jailed for two years for blaspheming against Islam despite the prosecution requesting only a suspended sentence for the lesser offence of inciting hatred.
The five-judge panel of the North Jakarta District Court ordered the arrest of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly known as Ahok, saying he had been found convincingly guilty of blaspheming against religion.
The trial, which has been widely seen as a litmus test for Indonesia's much-vaunted religious tolerance, derailed Ahok's bid for re-election and ignited sectarian tension across Indonesia.
"As Governor, as a public officer, the defendant should have known that religion is a sensitive issue so he should have avoided talking about religion," Judge Abdul Rosyad said.
Ahok, who was taken into detention at Cipinang in Jakarta, immediately indicated he would appeal.
His supporters wept in court. Thousands of Ahok fans have sent balloons and decorative flower boards to City Hall in recent weeks with messages of support for the embattled governor. Many made reference to Nemo, after Ahok compared himself to the clownfish, who swims against the current, in his unorthodox defence.
Ahok's supporters had hoped he would be acquitted or given a light sentence after prosecutors concluded he did not intend to insult Islam when he quoted verse 51 of a chapter of the Koran called Al-Maidah.
Ahok opened a Pandora's box when he told fishermen in the Thousand Islands province in September that his opponents were using Al-Maidah to deceive them into not voting for him.
Some interpret Al-Maidah to mean that Muslims should not be led by non-Muslims, although others argue it should be interpreted in the context of the time.
Ahok subsequently apologised but the comments were seized upon by his political foes and conservative Islamic groups that had long argued Jakarta should not be led by a non-Muslim.
Several massive rallies, spearheaded by radical groups, called for Ahok to be jailed and even lynched, with some protesters brazenly racially and religiously vilifying the governor, who is a double minority – Christian and ethnic Chinese.
Although largely peaceful, the rallies brought Jakarta to a standstill and the government, keenly aware of the street protests that spelled an end to the Suharto regime in 1998, worried they would destabilise the capital.
Ahok was brought to trial on what some political commentators considered trumped up charges aimed at appeasing the hardline groups. He faced a maximum five-year jail sentence.
"I don't understand why the trial is mixed with politics," Ahok supporter Rina Dodi told Fairfax Media outside court. "The trial is unfair. I am sad. Ahok is a statesman, he always takes the side of the people."
But Judge Rosyad said the panel of judges disagreed with Ahok's defence team, who argued the case was related to the April 19 gubernatorial election. "This is a pure crime case," he said.
Ahok was defeated by former education minister Anies Baswedan, a Muslim, despite high approval rating for Ahok's performance in office. Mr Anies will take up the position in October. Exit polls revealed religion was the number one factor that influenced the way Jakartans voted in the election.
Before the verdict, a delegation from the National Movement to Safeguard the Indonesian Ulema Council's Fatwa (GNPF-MUI), had visited the Supreme Court demanding it ensure the judges sentence Ahok to the maximum five years. However, outside court, Benny Haris Nainggolan from GNPF-MUI said he was happy with the verdict. "I am satisfied," he said.
One of Ahok's lawyers, I Wayan Sudirta, said he could understand the sentence due to the high pressure on the court. "However we cannot accept it, we are very disappointed with the sentence."
In what one Twitter wag called "peak Indonesia", pictures soon emerged on social media of Cipinang detention staff posing with Ahok.
The Home Affairs Ministry indicated it would ask President Joko Widodo to terminate Ahok's status as governor and appoint Vice Governor Djarot Saiful Hidaya as acting governor until Mr Anies came to office in October.
Dr Melissa Crouch, an expert in Indonesia's blasphemy laws from the University of NSW, said while many may be surprised by the verdict, it was not necessarily inconsistent.
"Judges fiercely guard their independence in Indonesia, and it may be that in this case they felt that the prosecutor recommended charges that were inconsistent with the original reason the case was brought to court," she said.
"In addition, all persons charged with the criminal offence of blasphemy have been found guilty, so this sentence fits with that pattern. To be accused of blasphemy in Indonesia is effectively to be found guilty. This gives a lot of power to those – such as religious leaders – who may make the initial complaint to police regarding blasphemy charges."
Dr Crouch said the verdict also raised questions about whether the prosecutor was potentially influenced by politics in its recommendations to the court.
On the eve of the blasphemy verdict, the Indonesian government moved to ban one of the hardline Islamic groups behind the massive Anti-Ahok protests staged in the capital over the past six months.
The government will ask the courts to disband Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, a group that seeks to establish a global Islamic caliphate.
Co-ordinating Political, Legal and Security Affairs Minister Wiranto said the group's activities threatened peace and order in society and endangered the unity of Indonesia.
He stressed that the decision did not mean the government was anti mass-Islamic organisations but was taken solely to safeguard the unity of Indonesia, that was based on its pluralistic state ideology, Pancasila and the 1945 constitution.
Professor Greg Barton said there were good grounds for disbanding Hizbut Tahrir in Indonesia, with the group already banned in Germany and across central Asia.
He said although the group was fairly innocuous before the rise of Islamic State, it had not revised its rhetoric on a global caliphate since the announcement of a formal Islamic State by insurgents in Syria and Iraq in 2014.
"To support a caliphate, including through jihad, in the way that HTI advocates, effectively contributes to an environment for Islamic State recruitment," said Professor Barton, who is the Chair of Global Islamic Politics at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation.
Although the HTI does not have any record of violence in Indonesia, Professor Barton said many of its members had gone on to more violent groups.
"The issue for Indonesia is that getting legislation through Parliament is notoriously difficult," he said. "Going to court is, under the circumstances, a reasonable move because it is very hard to otherwise control what they do."