JAKARTA, May 9, (Agencies): Jakarta’s Christian governor was jailed for two years Tuesday after being found guilty of blasphemy, in a shock decision that has stoked concerns over rising religious intolerance in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation. Islamic hardliners outside the Jakarta court shouted “God is greatest!” as news came through that Basuki Tjahaja Purnama would be sent to prison for insulting Islam, a surprisingly harsh punishment after prosecutors recommended only probation. Purnama, Jakarta’s first non-Muslim governor for half a century and its first ethnic Chinese leader, looked calm when the verdict was announced and said he would appeal, as some of his supporters in court burst into tears. He was immediately transferred to jail and authorities said his deputy would take over running Jakarta for the final few months of his term.
Hundreds of his supporters descended on the prison shouting “Free Ahok” — Purnama’s nickname — and shook the gate of the facility. The 50-year-old was hauled into court last year to face trial on charges of insulting the Holy Quran while campaigning for re-election, after the blasphemy accusations sparked a series of mass protests in Jakarta spearheaded by radical groups and encouraged by his rivals. Tuesday’s jail sentence and his loss last month to a Muslim challenger in the Jakarta vote, which he had once been favourite to win, has fuelled fears that hardliners are growing increasingly influential and that the country’s much-vaunted tolerant brand of Islam is under threat. “It’s another big step in the slow decline of religious freedom in Indonesia,” said Andreas Harsono, Indonesia researcher for Human Rights Watch, after Purnama was jailed. “If someone of that political stature can be charged and sent to prison, what will happen to others?”
Indonesia, 90 percent of whose 255 million people are Muslim, has a long tradition of pluralistic values and is home to substantial populations of Christians, Hindus and Buddhists. But there has been a rise in attacks on minorities in recent years. The five-judge panel at the Jakarta court found Purnama guilty of blasphemy after a months-long trial, in a case criticised as politically motivated. Announcing the verdict, presiding judge Dwiarso Budi Santiarto said Purnama was “convincingly guilty of committing blasphemy and is sentenced to two years in prison” and ordered him to be detained. Blasphemy carries a maximum jail term of five years in Indonesia but the sentence was a surprise as judges typically follow the recommendation of prosecutors — in this case, they had proposed two years probation. Analysts said the shock verdict could be a result of Purnama’s political rivals putting pressure on the country’s notoriously corrupt judiciary to remove him from power as soon as possible. President Joko Widodo, an ally of the governor, urged people to respect the decision of the court but added that “we must also respect the move by Basuki Tjahaja Purnama to file an appeal”.