Supporters of incumbent Jakarta Governor Basuki 'Ahok' Tjahaja Purnama demonstrate in front of Cipinang Prison on Tuesday after the court sentenced him to two years for blasphemy against Islam. (Antara Photo/Muhammad Adimaja)

Can Ahok Escape Jail Despite a Guilty Verdict?


MAY 09, 2017

Jakarta. North Jakarta District Court's ruling against Jakarta Governor Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama — in which judges went against the prosecutors' recommended sentence of two years' probation on a lesser charge and instead sentenced him to two years in prison on Tuesday morning (09/05) — was met with surprises not just from his supporters, but also from many rights activists and legal experts.

History suggests Indonesians charged with the country's blasphemy law, created in 1965, rarely get acquitted. The guilty verdict against Ahok was reached amid mounting pressures from Islamist groups, who have organized massive street rallies against the governor since late last year — which many blamed for his shock 16-point loss in the Jakarta gubernatorial election runoff in April.

The Dangers of Indonesia's Blasphemy Law

Hendardi, the chairman of Jakarta-based human rights group Setara Institute, said Ahok's blasphemy trial was the 97th of its kind between 1965 and 2017.

In a statement sent to the media on Tuesday (09/05), the rights activist said Jakarta residents need to respect the verdict from the North Jakarta District Court, though he did also admit that the judges in the case, led by Dwiarso Budi Santiarto, had received a lot of pressure from Islamist groups that demand Ahok — who became governor in 2014 to replace his predecessor Joko Widodo, now Indonesia's president — be jailed for insulting Islam.

Hendardi said the verdict shows once again that the blasphemy article in the country's Criminal Code is prone to be misused to prosecute or discriminate against Indonesia's religious minorities.

"Out of the 97 cases that have happened, 89 happened after 1998. The blasphemy law can be interpreted in widely different ways," Hendardi said.

1998 was when the 32-year authoritarian rule of Indonesia's second president Soeharto ended and the start of the "Reformasi" era. Since then Indonesians have been enjoying more freedom in many aspects of life and the country's leaders have been putting more effort to uphold the rule of law, which was previously often bent to benefit those in powers.

Hendardi said Tuesday's verdict was an extraordinary one since the judges decided to sentence Ahok with a harsher sentence than the prosecutors demanded, charging him with the "criminal act of blasphemy" according to Article 156a of Indonesia's Criminal Code, instead of charging him with Article 156, as proposed by the prosecutors, who said the governor had publicly expressed feelings of hostility, hatred or contempt against one or more groups in Indonesia.

Violation of Article 156a carries a maximum sentence of five years.

"The prosecutors could not provide enough evidence to charge Ahok with blasphemy, that was the reason why they downgraded the charge," Hendardi said.

Similarily, other legal experts were perplexed over the verdict, saying that it was a significant departure from usual practice.

"It is highly unusual for any judge to sentence a convicted person to a term that manifestly exceeds the prosecution's recommended sentence," Mika Vaswani, a former public prosecutor at the Attorney-General's Chambers of Singapore said.

But even though according to Hendardi the verdict was "unusual" and that the evidence against Ahok for the blasphemy charge was weak at best, Hendardi said "in principle, the judges are independent and free to decide the case."

Vaswani echoed these sentiments.

"It is the role of the prosecution to assist the court by recommending a sentence that is fair and proportionate to the crime committed. But ultimately, the judge has the discretion to interpret the law and evidence presented in a manner that is impartial and in the pursuit of justice," Vaswani said.

Local non-governmental organization Institute for Criminal Justice Reform shared Setara's and Vaswani's concerns, highlighting the dangers that the blasphemy law can be misused against religious minorities in Indonesia. "We've criticized the blasphemy law before, for the same reason. Its implementation has gone too far, and is often used to discriminate against minority groups," Supriyadi Eddyono, ICJR's executive director said in a statement on Tuesday.

ICJR regretted the guilty verdict against Ahok, believing that the court should have worked harder to ascertain Ahok's intention when he appeared to criticize political rivals who use verses from the Koran to discriminate against him.

Court announced he was guilty of blasphemy and sentenced him to two years. (Antara Photo/Akbar Nugroho)

What Did Ahok Really Say?

Tuesday's verdict, read by one of the judges at the trial, contended that Ahok has committed the criminal act of blasphemy since his speech on Pramuka Island in Jakarta's Thousand Islands district in September last year can be interpreted as saying that the Koran's Al-Maidah chapter, verse 51, can be used as a tool to deceive the public.

Ahok's actual statement that was reviewed in court was as follow: "Don't believe what they tell you, your conscience might tell you not to vote for me, because you've been fooled using Al-Maidah verse 51 [which says Muslims should not take non-Muslims as their leaders]... If you feel you can't choose me as your leader because you're afraid of going to hell, that's okay."

"From those words, it is clear the defendant considers Al-Maidah: 51 as a tool used to deceive the public [...] or that the verse is the source of a lie. For this reason, the court considers the defendant has insulted Al-Maidah: 51," one of the judges said, as quoted by

Can Ahok Escape Jail?

Ahok arrives at Cipinang Prison in East Jakarta on Tuesday (09/05). (Antara Photo/Ubaidillah)

An Indonesia researcher for Human Rights Watch, Andreas Harsono, had expressed his fears last year that Ahok would be found guilty.

"I have studied more than 200 blasphemy cases in Indonesia since it was written by [first] President Sukarno in 1965. Over this 50-year period I think there was only one case where the suspect was acquitted," he said, as quoted by The Guardian in an article dated Nov. 16, 2016.

"I don’t think Ahok can survive this prosecution, he is very likely to end up in jail," he said as quoted in The Guardian website.

Harsono said the last acquittal on charges of blasphemy in Indonesia happened to a newspaper editor in 1968 and in the most recent case in 2012, a 30-year-old civil servant from Sumatra was sent to two and a half years in jail after he declared on his Facebook page that he was an atheist.

"I think it is going to be difficult for Ahok to defend himself. Why? This is a law, in Bahasa Indonesia, we call it pasal karet, a rubber [band] article. It is always political," Harsono told The Guardian.

Ahok said he will appeal his guilty verdict even though he has already been taken to Cipinang Prison in East Jakarta on Tuesday to begin his sentence. Hundreds of his supporters have held a vigil in front of the prison and are planning a series of other events to protest the guilty verdict against Ahok in the next couple of days.