Blasphemy is a crime in predominantly-Muslim Indonesia but the law has been rarely enforced. But Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, an ethnic Chinese Christian popularly known as Ahok, was sentenced on Tuesday to two years in prison for the crime of intentionally insulting the Islam holy book Quran by citing a verse on it to criticize his election opponents in September last year.
Ahok cited Surah Al-Maidah 51 in a September speech where he said "Perhaps in your heart you feel you can't vote for me because you have been lied to using Surah Al Maidah 51. So if you feel you can't vote for me- you're worried because you've been fooled- it's OK. That is your personal call." The particular verse in the Islamic holy book is interpreted by many Muslim scholars to mean that Muslims are prohibited from electing non-Muslim leaders. Judges also claimed that the September remarks of Ahok were not the first time the Christian leader has cited the verse in contention, and concluded that in doing so he caused "public unrest."
The South Jakarta District Court panel of judges' verdict said the court did not see Ahok trying to avoid using words with negative connotations when citing the verse. The verdict also asserted that Ahok should have been more careful with his words as a state official.
Prosecutors have only sought a one-year term and two-years of probation but the sentence meted out on Ahok turned out to be double than what the prosecutors wanted. In fact, in their indictment the prosecutors did not even assert that Purnama had intentionally insulted the holy book.
The judges' have ordered the immediate detention of Ahok on Monday. His deputy, Djarot Saiful Hidayat, will likely take over as acting governor until Ahok's term ends in October. The decision was also handed down only a few days after Jakarta's election commission declared Ahok's opponent in the gubernatorial election, former Education Minister Anies Baswedan, as the winner of a runoff. Ahok has already said he will appeal the decision. His lawyers also said they believe the judges' decision was influenced by intense public pressure over the matter. Islamic groups stage rallies outside the court during every hearing of the case.
Ahok was initially leading the polls for the gubernatorial election early last year but his popularity sank after that controversial September speech. An earlier manipulated version of the video went viral leading to two big rallies in Jakarta last year by hundreds of thousands of Muslims from the capital and elsewhere, demanding that Ahok be jailed for blasphemy. Even when the authentic version of the video emerged, the public anger still did not wane, and political observers said Ahok's opponents exploited said public rage for political purposes and for their political gains. Basweden eventually took 58% of the vote, while Ahok received 42%. Baswedan will be inaugurated as the next governor of Jakarta in October and will serve a five-year term.
Ahok is seen as very close to Indonesian President Joko Widodo and some conspiracy theories claim that Widodo is himself anti-Muslim. Others speculate that Ahok's defeat will pave the way for former general Subianto, who lost to Widodo in the 2014 presidential election, to give the presidency another go in 2019. Ahok for his part said that when the crisis he's facing ends, he just wishes to retire from politics and host a TV show instead.