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Post-blasphemy ruling, Indonesia's reputation for pluralism takes a hit

Questions surround the future of Indonesia's reputation for tolerance after the conviction of the Christian Chinese governor of Jakarta on blasphemy charges yesterday.

Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly known as Ahok, was sentenced to two years in prison after courts found the him guilty of blasphemy yesterday. Ahok, who had become popular because of his stance against corruption, lost his re-election bid for the governor role to Anies Baswedan last month.

Jakarta's Christian governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly known as Ahok, arrives at a courtroom for his verdict and sentence in his blasphemy trial in Jakarta on May 9, 2017.
Isra Triansyah | Sindonews.com | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
Jakarta's Christian governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly known as Ahok, arrives at a courtroom for his verdict and sentence in his blasphemy trial in Jakarta on May 9, 2017.

Ahok's loss at the polls has partly been attributed to blasphemy charges brought against him last year. He had suggested in a speech last September that some Islamic politicians were using a verse in the Koran for political means. The verse he referred to has been interpreted by some as barring Muslims from accepting non-Muslim leaders.

Markets in Indonesia reversed gains in the trading session yesterday to close lower following news of the ruling. Still, the impact on equity investors is likely to be short-term, said Hugo Brennan, an analyst at Verisk Maplecroft.

However, the ruling could have a more significant impact on corporates thinking about entering Indonesia. "The case highlights their concerns about the lack of rule of law and an increasingly fractious political environment," Brennan said.

While judges involved in the case were adamant that the ruling was not politically motivated, many were left unconvinced.

Indonesians took to social media after the verdict, with some using the hashtag #RIPhukum (#RIPlaw) on Twitter to highlight how they felt about the lack of justice in the verdict. Others compared Ahok to political leaders who had been imprisoned in the past, including Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi and the late Nelson Mandela.

Experts also alluded to the political nature of the case.

"It's hard to see this for anything other than what it appears — a politically-motivated sentence to appease hardline Islamists groups and politicians with a vested interested in seeing Ahok's political career go up in smoke," said Brennan.

Indonesians walk past a farewell wreaths for Basuki Tjahaja Purnama also known as Ahok, Jakarta's first non-Muslim governor for half a century and its first ethnic Chinese leader, in Jakarta, on May 10, 2017.
Bay Ismoyo | AFP | Getty Images
Indonesians walk past a farewell wreaths for Basuki Tjahaja Purnama also known as Ahok, Jakarta's first non-Muslim governor for half a century and its first ethnic Chinese leader, in Jakarta, on May 10, 2017.

While President Joko Widodo, an ally of Ahok, has the power to pardon offenders in concert with the Supreme Court under the Indonesian constitution, this is unlikely to happen, Brennan said. Jokowi, as the president is commonly referred to, told local media on Tuesday that the government "cannot interfere with the legal process."

Between 2005 and 2014, a total of 106 individuals have been convicted under Indonesia's blasphemy law, which was introduced in 1965, according to Amnesty International.

The blasphemy law, however, contradicts Article 28E of the Indonesian Constitution, which states that individuals are free to worship the religion of their choice and to freely express their opinions, said Australian Catholic University researcher Dina Afrianty.

"Regimes change but (the) blasphemy law has always been used by majority groups to discriminate or criminalize others," Afrianty said. Post-ruling, it will be worrying if this becomes a precedent for imprisoning those who talk about their religion or the religion of others, she added.

Going forward, the Indonesian government is likely to have to navigate between growing conservative Islamic factions and the country's commitment to pluralism and diversity as it heads to the polls in 2019.

"The Jakarta gubernatorial election result and the Ahok trial verdict will embolden hardline Islamists and indicates their increasing political influence. But it is overstating events to equate this with the death of moderate Islam in Indonesia," Brennan told CNBC.

Afrianty struck a more cautious tone. "This is a serious challenge for the unity of the nation … for Indonesia's Islamic identity (and) Indonesia's justice system," she said, warning that anti-Chinese sentiments could potentially re-emerge.