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Indonesia: Governor of Jakarta Withdraws Appeal of Blasphemy Sentence

Wednesday 24 May 2017, by siawi3

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/23/world/asia/indonesia-ahok-blasphemy-appeal.html

Governor of Jakarta Withdraws Appeal of Blasphemy Sentence

By JOE COCHRANE

MAY 23, 2017

Photo: Gov. Basuki Tjahaja Purnama of Jakarta in court on May 9, the day he was convicted of blasphemy. Credit Sigid Kurniawan/Antara Foto, via Reuters

JAKARTA, Indonesia — The Christian governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who was recently imprisoned for blasphemy against Islam in a trial that has divided Indonesia, has withdrawn an appeal of his two-year sentence, his family and defense team said on Tuesday.

Tommy Sihotang, a defense lawyer for Mr. Basuki, said that the case had become too politicized and that “anything could happen” in an appeal — including the possible lengthening of the governor’s sentence, which has happened in other appeals to the Jakarta High Court, or clashes between his supporters and opponents.

“There was no pressure on him,” Mr. Sihotang said. “This is straight from the heart.”

The unexpected decision by Mr. Basuki, who had initially asked to be released while appealing his conviction, could prolong religious and ethnic tensions in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, given that his prosecution was widely viewed as orchestrated by his political rivals using race and ethnicity as weapons.

An appeal of Mr. Basuki’s prison sentence filed by the prosecution, which had requested that he be found guilty of the lesser charge of inciting hatred and had asked for probation, remains in place — for now.

“We will conduct an assessment of the relevance and urgency of the compulsory legal remedies,” said M. Rum, a spokesman for the Indonesian attorney general’s office, who declined to say whether the prosecutors would continue to push for probation. “We will let the public know as soon as possible.”

Mr. Basuki, who is ethnic Chinese and is popularly known as Ahok, was the incumbent governor and was leading in opinion polls in the race to be Jakarta’s governor when he was accused of violating blasphemy law by citing a verse from the Quran in a speech last September to argue that it was acceptable for Muslims to vote for a non-Muslim candidate.

Hard-line Islamic groups accused Mr. Basuki of blaspheming Islam and the Quran, and held multiple large street protests — one of which turned violent — demanding that he be jailed or executed.

Under public pressure, the Indonesian police declared Mr. Basuki a suspect and he went on trial in December. He was convicted by the North Jakarta District Court on May 9, three weeks after being defeated in a runoff election on April 19 by Anies Baswedan, a Muslim former minister of education and culture.

Mr. Basuki and his supporters asserted that his prosecution was orchestrated by political rivals, using hard-line Islamic groups as muscle, to destroy his campaign as well as the prospects of his key political ally, the president of Indonesia, Joko Widodo, who is running for re-election in 2019.

Mr. Widodo, who is Muslim, presides over a country of 250 million people that includes small but influential Christian, Hindu and Buddhist minorities, and Mr. Basuki ran on the ticket of Mr. Widodo’s governing Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle.

Photo: Supporters of Mr. Basuki in Denpasar, Bali, this month, demanding his release. Credit Made Nagi/European Pressphoto Agency

Mr. Basuki’s conviction and imprisonment have divided Indonesian families and friends, sparked explosive internet commentaries, raised questions about Indonesia’s national motto of racial and religious tolerance — “Unity in Diversity’’ — and reignited fears that the country’s secular government could be hijacked by Islamic extremists.

The governor’s immediate imprisonment also sparked protests and candlelight vigils across Indonesia as well as in other countries. On Monday, a group of experts from the United Nations called for Mr. Basuki to be released from detention, Reuters reported.

After his conviction, the governor was taken to Cipinang Penitentiary in Jakarta, which houses some of Indonesia’s most violent criminals, before being transferred a day later to a police detention center outside the capital, for security reasons.

Mr. Basuki’s wife, Veronica Tan, a Christian and ethnic Chinese, tearfully read a statement on Tuesday written by her husband, announcing his decision to withdraw his appeal.

“I know it’s not easy for you to accept this fact, much less me,” she said at a news conference, quoting her husband. “But I have learned to forgive and accept all this, for the good of the nation and the state.”

Under Indonesian law, the governor must serve at least two-thirds of his sentence to be eligible for parole, minus sentence reductions for good behavior, meaning he could be behind bars until late 2018.

Mr. Basuki’s statement, dated on Sunday, did not specifically explain why he chose not to contest his conviction, but noted that he feared violent protests between his supporters and opposition groups “who do not like our struggle.”

Mr. Basuki, the grandson of a tin miner from China, was widely lauded as a no-nonsense, hard-charging leader, a contrast to the soft-spoken Javanese politicians to whom the Indonesian capital is accustomed.

He frequently berated civil servants as corrupt and incompetent, which analysts say rubbed some Indonesians the wrong way, in particular because the criticism was coming from a minority Christian.

Effendi Gazali, a political analyst from the University of Indonesia, said he believed that Mr. Basuki’s decision to serve his term could ultimately help resurrect his political career, as a “greater icon” for the country’s nascent democracy.

He said that the governor also did not want to be a political liability to Mr. Joko ahead of regional elections next year, and the 2019 presidential election.

“We know that the government is now seriously facing a divided nation, primarily based on religion,” Mr. Effendi said. “Ahok understands that the situation from the Jakarta election could be intentionally spread or continue into the 171 local elections in 2018, including in the three biggest provinces in Indonesia.”

Muhammad Rusmadi contributed reporting.{}