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Indonesia Convicts Jakarta's Christian Governor Of Blasphemy


In Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, a Christian governor has been convicted of blasphemy. Basuki Purnama is the governor of Jakarta, the capital city. He's popularly known as Ahok. A panel of five judges ruled that he had insulted Islam, and they sentenced him to prison. Joining us to talk about this is Andreas Harsono. He's the Indonesia researcher for Human Rights Watch. Welcome to the program.


SIEGEL: Ahok is in jail because of something he told a group of Indonesian fishermen. What is it that he said that a court has claimed is blasphemous?

HARSONO: He basically told those fishermen that some politician, some people might tell them that it is not right for these Muslim fishermen to have a Christian governor like him. And he told them don't believe them because they are misusing the Quran.

SIEGEL: So he was saying disregard what some extremists may tell you. It doesn't violate your religion to have a Christian being governor of Jakarta.

HARSONO: Basically that's what he said.

SIEGEL: And these remarks were declared to be blasphemous against Islam. What exactly is the governor accused of having done there that would qualify as blasphemy?

HARSONO: The clerics say that you as Christian have no rights, are not welcome to comment about the interpretation of the Quran. That is blasphemy.

SIEGEL: Indonesia has a pluralist constitution. It's known for religious tolerance. There are several religious minorities. Does this verdict threaten all that?

HARSONO: On paper yes because over the last 19 years, we are seeing more and more blasphemy cases; again, mostly religious minorities. The blasphemy law was written in 1965. But in the next 40 years, it was used less than 10 times. But since 2004 when the previous president - his name is Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono - came to power, he strengthened the blasphemy law office. He also tolerated Islamist organizations sometimes using violence in, you know, harassing minorities, closing down churches. And then we saw the blasphemy cases rising.

SIEGEL: The governor, who has been jailed, is an ally of Indonesia's president, Joko Widodo. The president is seen as a moderate and as a reformer, someone who's seeking foreign investment in Indonesia. He has urged people to wait to see what happens when this case is appealed. Does this conviction make it that much harder for President Widodo to describe Indonesia as a moderate, open, tolerant place?

HARSONO: Obviously, it is going to be difficult, not only for President Widodo but also everyone else, including Vice President Mike Pence, who just visited Jakarta and declared it as a moderate, tolerant Muslim country. This is going to challenge for anyone now to say that Indonesia is a moderate Muslim country.

SIEGEL: In summary, is this conviction something that strikes you as an event out of the ordinary in contemporary Indonesia? Or is it a sign of something important that's changing and that is becoming more common in Indonesia?

HARSONO: This is a sign that Indonesia is in decline, and there are more and more persecution, discrimination against religious minorities and women's rights, LGBT, et cetera, et cetera. But everyone is surprised that someone politically powerful, the governor of Indonesia's biggest city and a very close ally of the president, can be brought down and be humiliated and can be sent in prison in very short time. So that says a lot about this long decline of Indonesia.

SIEGEL: That's Andreas Harsono of Human Rights Watch. He joined us via Skype from Jakarta in Indonesia. Thanks for talking with us.

HARSONO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.