2017/22, 12 May 2017
On Tuesday, 9 May 2017, the North Jakarta District Court sentenced outgoing ethnic Chinese Christian Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (also known as Ahok) to two years in jail for blasphemy against Islam.
This sentence is the newest turn in what has been a highly contested blasphemy trial that began in October last year, after a video emerged of Ahok allegedly insulting those who use the Al-Maidah 51 verse of the Quran as the basis for not voting for a non-Muslim leader.
Given the heated political climate and public pressure from conservative Muslim factions in the last few months, few had expected a not-guilty verdict. But the judicial panel’s decision came as a surprise for some people, particularly because the sentence imposed is harsher than the one-year suspended sentence that the prosecutors had recommended.
There are a few important implications, both immediate and longer-term, for Indonesian politics following this sentence. Ahok’s guilty verdict and sentence seemed to have appeased hard-line and conservative Muslims. Yet, any hopes that the hard-liners would now tone down their demands are unrealistic. Already, many are complaining that the sentence is not harsh enough and that a harsher sentence should be given on appeal. If anything, the outcome of Purnama’s trial has lent even more legitimacy to the narratives of Islamic hardliners.
Second, although Ahok may appeal the sentence, he has been incarcerated immediately and his political career at the moment looks rather bleak. The most likely scenario is that Ahok will soon be officially dismissed from his post as governor, thus disabling him from serving the rest of his term, which expires in October. Debates are now on-going about the legal implications of Ahok’s verdict, but the sentence also implies that – because of laws governing public office – Ahok could not be appointed to other governmental posts or run for other public office for the time being.
The Ahok case demonstrates that Islam, the religion of the majority in Indonesia, will continue to have a significant role to play in Indonesian domestic politics. It also implies that politicians can appropriate religious sentiments for political purposes, and this is likely to be the case for future regional elections and the presidential election coming up in 2019.
Charlotte Setijadi is Visiting Fellow at the Indonesia Studies Programme at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.
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