Jakarta. It didn’t take long until the return of hardline Muslim group leader Rizieq Syihab fueled another controversy that resulted in the removal of the police chief in Jakarta and West Java.
The leader of the Islamic Defender Front, or FPI, a group notorious for vandalism and intolerant attitudes toward non-Muslims, has become a magnet for thousands of supporters and sympathizers since he arrived in Jakarta last week from a two-year stay in Saudi Arabia.
His presence in several occasions in Jakarta and West Java attracted a large crowd that potentially becomes super-spreader events as attendants visibly ignored physical distancing rule and many didn’t wear face masks during the coronavirus outbreak.
Jakarta is home to 25 percent of confirmed coronavirus cases nationwide, while West Java is currently experiencing its fastest growth in newly cases since the outbreak began.
The government is apparently unhappy with reports of violations to the health protocols involving thousands of people who wanted to see Rizieq, one of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s most outspoken political opponents.
The president took to Twitter to underline his message while trying to avoid being political.
“Public safety during a pandemic is the highest law. Therefore, the health protocol must be enforced by stern measures, including disbandment of mass gatherings,” the president wrote.
“I have ordered the National Police chief, the Indonesian Military commander and the [National Covid-19] Task Force head to take actions against any offenders.”
National Police Chief Idham Azis, who reports directly to the president, followed the message by demoting Jakarta Police Chief Inspector General Nana Sudjana and his West Java counterpart Inspector General Rudy Sufahriadi.
“The two provincial police chiefs have been removed from their duties for failing to enforce the health protocols," National Police spokesman Insp. Gen. Argo Yuwono said in a news conference at his office in South Jakarta.
He didn’t specifically mention Rizieq or the FPI, but there was no denial from the police headquarters to reports linking the decision to the mass gatherings.
Idham, the National Police chief, was summoned by the president only hours before the announcement.
In a separate conference, chief security minister Mahfud M.D. said the government will take stern measures against law enforcement officials who take no action toward blatant violations to the health protocols during the outbreak.
Mahfud said the government received complaints from elements of the society who joined the fight against the highly contagious disease about mass gatherings that showed a complete disregard for the health protocols.
“They said such violations showed disrespect for what they have been doing so far,” Mahfud said.
Another controversy in the series of events was the fact that Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan and his deputy Ahmad Riza Patria were among those who welcomed Rizieq’s arrival.
Anies, who has been touted by several Islamic groups as a potential contender for the 2024 presidential race, became a guest at Rizieq’s home in Petamburan, Central Jakarta the day the FPI leader arrived last Tuesday.
Ahmad even delivered a speech at the religious gathering led by Rizieq to commemorate the birthday of Prophet Muhammad in Tebet, South Jakarta, on Friday.
Two days later, the deputy governor said Rizieq was slapped with a Rp 50 million fine for violating the health protocol that, according to him, “was paid immediately”.
However, it’s clear that President Jokowi cannot take such an ambiguity.
“I ask the home affairs minister to remind, or reprimand if necessary, all regional leaders -- be they are governors, district heads or mayors -- to set example to their people, instead of joining the crowd themselves,” Jokowi tweeted on Monday.
Concern about new clusters of infection has surfaced since the day when Rizieq arrived at the Soekarno-Hatta Airport last week. Thousands of his supporters packed the arrival terminal hours before his arrival, causing a seven-kilometer line of vehicles stuck in traffic jam.
Another big crowd attended his home to extend well wishes, including Governor Anies.
On Friday, Rizieq visited a Muslim boarding school in Bogor, West Java, before leading the Prophet Muhammad commemoration event in South Jakarta.
A day later, Rizieq held a wedding party for his daughter that also attracted thousands of guests.
Rizieq left for Saudi Arabia in May 2017 amid allegations of adultery and pornographic chats, in addition to several legal issues including defamation and treason concerning his speeches.
The 55-year-old remained an influential figure among President Jokowi;s political opponents during his stay in the Kingdom where he often received their visits, including one by then presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto in the heat of the 2019 election.