Indonesia Police Question Christian Politician in Blasphemy Case
Jakarta governor accused of mocking Islam faces possible charges, despite apology
Photo: One of many posters carried during Friday’s rally in Jakarta that called for jailing the incumbent governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, for alleged blasphemy. Photo: Reuters
By Ben Otto and Anita Rachman
Nov. 7, 2016 2:16 a.m. ET
JAKARTA, Indonesia—Police questioned the most prominent Christian politician in this predominantly Muslim country on Monday as they consider a blasphemy charge against him, just three months ahead of an election where he is the leading candidate.
The case has raised concerns about the growing strength of conservative Islam in Indonesia, less than two decades after the ouster of the dictator Suharto ushered in the democratic era here.
Gov. Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known generally as Ahok, arrived early at national police headquarters as dozens of his supporters gathered outside, many wearing his trademark red, blue and white checkered shirts.
The voluntary appearance followed an anti-Ahok rally called by hard-line Muslim groups that drew some 200,000 people to the capital on Friday. They demanded he be prosecuted for a reference he had made to the Quran.
Hours after the protest ended, President Joko Widodo appeared on television promising legal proceedings regarding Mr. Purnama—his former deputy— would be swift and transparent.
Police said they would question Mr. Purnama and various experts and then discuss—in unprecedented televised hearings—whether to mount a case. They haven’t set a date for those deliberations.
The criminal charge of blasphemy, while still relatively uncommon, has been levied more frequently here in recent years. The charge carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison if convicted.
There were 10 cases between 1965 and 1998 under Suharto, while more than 100 people have been convicted in the decade since 2005, according to Amnesty International.
Most cases involved perceived offenses to Islam, such as leading a deviant sect or insulting the Prophet.
Mr. Purnama, who is from Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese minority, is being investigated for comments made in September about a verse of the Quran that says Muslims shouldn’t be led by non-Muslims.
Mr. Purnama had made light of the verse, telling constituents it was fine if they felt they had to vote against him because of it. He also indirectly suggested that people could be fooled by the verse.
Weeks later, some hard-line Muslim groups accused him of blasphemy for, they said, calling the Quranic verse a lie. An influential ulema council of Islamic scholars concluded that he had committed blasphemy.
Mr. Purnama has apologized for his comments and said he would cooperate with police.
He has enjoyed high approval ratings during his two years as governor, and had been seen leading a field of candidates in the February election, running with the backing of Mr. Widodo’s secular nationalist party. Both men first won office as outsiders.
Mr. Purnama’s two main challengers now are backed by the elite of Jakarta politics: Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono is the son of former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono; and Anies Baswedan is supported by the party of Prabowo Subianto, a former Suharto-era general who lost to Mr. Widodo in 2014.
Leaders of both parties had expressed for support for the rally, but denied any involvement in organizing it. In his televised address afterward, Mr. Widodo said “political actors” had conspired to take advantage of the rally, but didn’t elaborate.
Outside police headquarters Monday, Marlina Rai, 42 years old, said she took a day off from her catering business to demonstrate her continued support for Mr. Purnama. “We are here to show him that we care, we support him” because of what he has done for Jakarta, she said. “I am a Muslim and I am not offended by his remarks. I vote for a leader not merely from his religion.”
About a quarter of the world’s countries have anti-blasphemy laws or policies, with punishments ranging from fines to death, according to the Pew Research Center. Such policies are most common in the Middle East and North Africa, where 18 of 20 countries criminalize blasphemy, Pew said.
In Southeast Asia, Singapore, Malaysia, Myanmar and Brunei also have anti-blasphemy policies.