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ELIZABETH SOELISTIO WRITES – In early May, the former governor of Jakarta was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to two years in prison. This came shortly after he lost re-election to a Muslim opponent in a hard-fought election campaign.
To Muslim conservatives, the sentence was seen as too light. But to supporters of Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, it was an outrage. Though not Muslim, Ahok was no enemy of the religion. His alleged crime came from reaching out to Muslim voters and engaging with them on the topic extremists quoting the Quaran out of context to justify political actions.
In response to the two-year sentence, many Indonesians at home and abroad have taken to social media via the hashtag #Ahok to voice their support for the jailed politician. Other related hashtags also criticize Indonesia’s justice system, including #RIPHukum (Rest in Peace Law), #SaveAhok, #FreeAhok, #RIPIndonesiajustice, and #Ahokbukanpenistagama (Ahok is not a blasphemer).
With thousands of people across Indonesia protesting and standing in solidarity with the inactive governor, Ahok is considered by some a “Martyr of Democracy,” as the case exposes certain weaknesses in Indonesia’s justice system. Many notable artists, journalists, international political observers, and ordinary Jakartans have joined in, saying the sentence has damaged Indonesia’s reputation as a tolerant and diverse nation.
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Despite the broad belief that Indonesia is a model of peaceful Islam, this verdict has called that into question for many. The European Union and several international human rights organizations have called on Indonesia to review and repeal the strict blasphemy law.
ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) has also expressed its concern regarding the verdict. Charles Santiago, a member of the Malaysian Parliament and Chair of APHR, commented that Ahok was a victim of rising extremism and religious identity politics.
“The verdict is deeply disconcerting not only for Indonesia, but for the entire ASEAN region,” he said. “Indonesia was thought to be a regional leader in terms of democracy and openness. This decision places that position in jeopardy and raises concerns about Indonesia’s future as an open, tolerant, diverse society.”
The charges came from a speech Ahok gave in September that included a verse from the Quran and criticized politicians who suggested that Muslims could not vote for a leader from other religions.
Ahok did lose his reelection bid, by a wide margin, but even some who voted against him see the jail sentence as extreme.
In Manado, North Sulawesi, local residents marched with candles in an event called “1,000 Candles From Manado for Ahok”. A similar march was held in in Jayapura, Papua, where residents carried with red and white candles, the official colors of Indonesia’s national flag.
Meiva Salindeho Lintang, a member of the North Sulawesi Regional Legislative Council (DPRD), commented that “the people of North Sulawesi declare their solidarity with Ahok and mourn the death of justice in this country.”
Local activist Jull Takaliuang added that “Although we may differ in our religion beliefs, we are part of one nation, Indonesia, which cherishes the values enshrined in the official slogan of ‘Unity in Diversity.’ Discrimination must be ended.”
Indonesian communities abroad have also organized mass gatherings and candlelight vigils, including ones in West Covina, California, Perth, Australia and Toronto, Canada.