World

Don't let it become 'trial by mob'

Indonesia faces test as Christian governor stands trial

JAKARTA: The Christian governor of Jakarta will stand trial today accused of blasphemy in a high-profile case that has emboldened hardline groups and stoked fears of growing intolerance in the world's largest Muslim-majority nation.

Mr Basuki Tjahaja Purnama - the first Christian to govern Jakarta in more than 50 years - will defend allegations that he insulted the Quran and fight calls for his imprisonment under Indonesia's blasphemy laws.

The case is being viewed partly as a test of religious tolerance in Indonesia, where a spike in attacks on minorities has eroded a reputation for inclusiveness. "If he's found guilty, this could be the biggest setback for pluralism in Indonesia's history," said Mr Tobias Basuki from the Jakarta-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Mr Purnama fell afoul of Indonesia's archaic blasphemy laws when he insinuated that his rivals had used a Quranic verse to trick people into voting against him in February's election for the next Jakarta governor.

He apologised but Indonesia's highest clerical body and several radical groups declared the remarks blasphemous and urged authorities to file charges.

Critics want the country's blasphemy laws overhauled. The legislation was rarely used during the 32-year rule of strongman Suharto but, in recent years, it has been exploited to persecute minorities, rights groups said.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo - like his predecessors - has been accused of ignoring the rise of intolerant hardline groups, which have flourished in nearly 20 years of democracy since Mr Suharto's downfall.

BACKLASH

Mr Widodo "did not have the courage" to stand up to these firebrand Muslims, said political expert Syamsudin Haris, fearing a backlash from the electorate - 90 per cent of whom are Muslims.

The populist backlash against Mr Purnama - an ally of Mr Widodo - backed the president even further into a corner.

His efforts at playing peacemaker ahead of a huge rally last month failed, with mobs burning police cars and clashing with anti-riot officers outside the presidential palace.

Critics said the controversy is as much about politics as the governor's foes whip up anger to reduce his support ahead of the hotly-contested February poll.

Mr Purnama, who was on track to win, has seen his lead crumble, as his two rivals - both politically-connected Muslims - have gained ground.

He risks losing more support if the scandal drags on, a pollster told AFP.

The trial, which Mr Widodo and the police have vowed to resolve quickly, will have long-lasting impact, analysts said, especially if Mr Purnama is sentenced to five years' prison, as allowed by law.

"The government can't let this become a trial by mob, because it will set a terrible precedent for our democracy," said Mr Hendardi, the chairman of rights group Setara Institute. - AFP

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