Jakarta’s Christian governor stands trial for blasphemy

December 13, 2016 10:00 am
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Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (C), is accused of insulting the Koran © POOL/AFP / Tatan SYUFLANA

, Jakarta, Indonesia, Dec 13 – Jakarta’s Christian governor choked back tears as he gave an impassioned defence against blasphemy charges on Tuesday, in a court case that has stoked fears of growing intolerance in the Muslim-majority nation.

Basuki Tjahaja Purnama — the first Christian to govern the capital in more than 50 years — is standing trial accused of insulting the Koran, an offence that carries a five-year jail term.

The governor has apologised for his controversial remarks, which angered Muslims across Indonesia and drew hundreds of thousands to the streets of Jakarta in protests larger than any seen in nearly two decades.

Facing court for the first time, the governor gave an emotionally charged defence against the charges, pausing several times to compose himself as he maintained his innocence.

“I know I have to respect the holy verses of the Koran. I do not understand how I can be said to have offended Islam,” Purnama said, occasionally dabbing his eyes with a handkerchief.

Profile of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, Jakarta’s first non-Muslim leader in over 50 years, on trial for blasphemy © AFP Graphic

Purnama, better known by his nickname Ahok, ignited a firestorm of criticism in September when he quoted the Islamic holy text while campaigning ahead of elections for the Jakarta governorship.

The governor accused his opponents of using a Koranic verse, which suggests Muslims should not choose non-Muslims as leaders, in order to trick people into voting against him.

– Politics at play –

Prosecutor Ali Mukartono said the governor had “spoken a lie” and insulted Muslims, adding Indonesia’s top clerical council had declared his remarks blasphemous.

But lawyers for the governor said their client never intended to commit blasphemy, and expressed concern that Purnama’s case was being rushed.

President Joko Widodo and police, under pressure as protesters massed in November, promised to resolve the case quickly.

Critics say the controversy is as much about politics as religion, as the governor’s foes whip up anger to reduce his support ahead of a hotly contested poll in February.

Purnama is running against two Muslim candidates in elections for city hall.

Jakarta’s governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, nicknamed ‘Ahok’ faces jail if convicted of blasphemy in a trail demanded by hardline Muslim demonstrators © AFP / Adek BERRY

He had long been the favourite to win the election owing to the popularity of his no-nonsense style and determination to clean up Jakarta, a crowded, polluted metropolis of 10 million.

But the scandal has eroded his chances of victory, with his opponents gaining ground since Purnama was named a suspect for blasphemy in November.

Purnama said he was raised a Christian but surrounded by Muslims, including family friends, who had played an enormous mentorship role in his life from when he was a child to adulthood.

The allegations that he had offended their religion hurt him very deeply.

“I am very sad,” he said, his voice cracking.

“This accusation is the same as saying I have offended my god parents and siblings, whom I love and they love me back.”

He also listed the many services he had provided for his Islamic constituents, including the construction of mosques, support for religious schools and donation of sacrificial cows on sacred days.

A small band of his supporters kept vigil outside the court as a larger congregation of hardline Islamists chanted “Jail Ahok” and held signs depicting Purnama in prison garb behind bars.

“We will continue to fight this, and won’t be provoked or influenced,” one of Purnama’s supporters said.

The high-profile case has gripped the country. The courtroom was surrounded by police on Tuesday, with the proceedings being broadcast live on national television.

The case has emboldened hardliners, analysts say, who have long opposed a Christian as governor and have used the blasphemy scandal to push their conservative agenda.

Rights groups want Indonesia’s archaic blasphemy laws overhauled, arguing they are exploited to persecute minorities.

The case has adjourned until December 20.

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