Jakarta's Christian governor was sentenced to two years in jail for blasphemy against Islam today, a harsher than expected ruling in a trial that was seen as a test of religious tolerance in Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim-majority nation.
The guilty verdict comes amid concern about the growing influence of Islamist groups, who organised mass demonstrations during a tumultuous election campaign that ended with Basuki Tjahaja Purnama losing his bid for another term as governor.
President Joko Widodo was an ally of Purnama, an ethnic-Chinese Christian who is popularly known as "Ahok", and the verdict will be a blow to a government that has sought to quell radical groups and soothe investors' concerns that the country's secular values were at risk.
As thousands of supporters and opponents waited outside, the head judge of the south Jakarta court, Dwiarso Budi Santiarto, said 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".
Andreas Harsono of Human Rights Watch described the verdict as "a huge setback" for Indonesia's record of tolerance and for minorities.
"If someone like Ahok, the governor of the capital, backed by the country's largest political party, ally of the president, can be jailed on groundless accusations, what will others do?" Harsono said.
Thousands of police were deployed in the capital early today in case clashes broke out, but there was no immediate sign of any violence after the court's verdict.
Purnama told the court he would appeal the ruling.
There was shock among his supporters outside the court and some wept openly.
Prosecutors had urged a suspended one-year jail sentence on charges of hate speech. The maximum sentence is four years in prison for hate speech and five years for blasphemy.
Hardline Islamist groups had urged the maximum penalty possible over comments by Purnama that they said were insulting to the Islamic holy book, the Quran.
Purnama denied wrongdoing, though he apologised for comments he made last year criticising his opponents' use of the Quran in political campaigning ahead of the election for governor.
Purnama lost his bid for re-election to a Muslim rival, Anies Baswedan, in an April run-off - after the most divisive and religiously charged election in recent years. He will hand over to Baswedan in October.
Analysts say the radical Islamist groups that organised mass protests against Purnama had a decisive impact on the outcome of the election.
Rights group fear they are in the ascendant in a country where most Muslims practise a moderate form of Islam and which is home to sizeable communities of Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, and people who adhere to traditional beliefs.
The government has been criticised for not doing enough to protect religious minorities but Joko had urged restraint over the trial and called for all sides to respect the legal process.
His government said yesterday it would take legal steps to disband Hizb ut-Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), a group that seeks to establish an Islamic caliphate, because its activities were creating social tensions and threatening security.
Indonesia's blasphemy law originated with a 1965 presidential decree from the country's first president, Sukarno, in response to demands from majority Muslim organisations urging a prohibition on deviant beliefs.
It was made law in 1969, during the rule of a later president, Suharto. The law covers acts that deviate from the six officially recognised religions - Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism - as well as defamation of these religions and promotion of atheism.
In theory, the law covers only actual deviation from set practices. However, there have been multiple cases of people being prosecuted under separate laws for voicing criticism of the faiths. Such offences are punishable by up to five years in prison.
In 2002, a civil servant in West Sumatra, Alexander Aan, was sentenced to two years in prison for creating a Facebook group for local atheists that contained messages critical of Islam. The provisions banning the expression of hostility towards a religion and the promotion of atheism have been incorporated into the criminal code.
In 2013, the Constitutional Court rejected a petition filed by activists who argued that the blasphemy law contravened the right to religious freedom, as set out in the constitution. The court argued that the blasphemy law was necessary to maintain public order.
According to Amnesty International, at least 106 individuals have been prosecuted and convicted under blasphemy laws in Indonesia since 2005. Those convicted were mostly members of religious minorities or those who practised beliefs considered to be deviant.
- Reuters, dpa