Updated at 12:32 p.m. ET on 2019-01-24
A former Chinese-Christian governor of the Indonesian capital walked free from prison Thursday after serving 20½ months of a two-year sentence for allegedly blaspheming Islam – a case that drew international attention around the emerging influence of fundamentalism on politics in the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation.
Ex-Jakarta Gov. Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known as “Ahok,” left the Mobile Brigade (Brimob) police prison in Depok, West Java, accompanied by his son and an aide upon his release, warden Andika Dwi Prasetya said.
“Praise be to God, he is in good health,” Andika told reporters.
Ahok, 52, who now prefers to be called by his initials “BTP,” did not speak to a throng of reporters and about two dozen supporters who were waiting for him outside the prison housed in the Brimob headquarters south of Jakarta.
But he exclaimed “Freedom!” as he posted photos on Twitter showing him signing official documents to secure his release from prison. In December, Indonesian corrections officials announced that Ahok was to be freed this month before his two-year sentence was up because of good behavior.
On Thursday, Ima Mahdiah, an aide to the former governor, said Ahok went home from the prison immediately upon his release so he could be with his children and mother.
“I’m only here for Mr. BTP. I just want to see him wave his hand,” said a tearful supporter in the crowd, Tuti Oti, who was dressed in a trademark checkered shirt worn by Ahok during his past electoral campaign for governor.
“I am sad that I couldn’t meet him. He is a good person,” the housewife told BenarNews, as two of her friends tried to console her.
Before his release, Ahok posted a message on his Twitter account, in which he appealed to his supporters not to come to the prison or hold a large gathering to celebrate his freedom.
Ahok was convicted of blasphemy in May 2017 over remarks contained in an edited video recording of a public speech, in which Ahok purportedly said that opponents had used a Quranic verse to dissuade people from voting for a Christian in that year’s gubernatorial election.
The casual remarks were made during a meeting with residents while the governor was on a working visit to an island off Jakarta. Ahok belongs to Indonesia’s tiny ethnic Chinese and Christian minority.
Later on, an edited video clip of his remarks was posted on Facebook. In it, an incomplete quote by Ahok made it appear like he was suggesting that the Quran deceived people.
This angered members of the country’s Islamic majority, and led to hundreds of thousands of Muslims marching through the streets of Jakarta in late 2016 and early 2017 to demand he be jailed for blasphemy.
Ahok lost his gubernatorial election bid in February 2017 to Anies Baswedan, a Muslim intellectual and former education minister, despite being a frontrunner in a three-way vote. He was convicted of blasphemy three months later.
Buni Yani, the man who edited the video, was later found guilty and sentenced to 18 months in prison for violating the country’s cyber law in connection with that footage. He was convicted of breaching a section of the law that regulates the changing, adding to, destroying or omitting of electronic information.
According to a report by South China Morning Post, Buni Yani appealed the ruling and has not served a day in prison following his conviction. He is now working on the media unit for the presidential election campaign of Prabowo Subianto, a former army general, the Hong Kong-based newspaper said.
HRW weighs in
Ahok’s jailing underscored the dangerous and discriminatory nature of Indonesia’s blasphemy law, Human Rights Watch said Thursday in reacting to news of his release.
“Ahok will finally be out of prison and reunited with his family, but he should never have been imprisoned in the first place,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director for the global rights watchdog.
“Ahok’s unjust conviction is a reminder that minorities in Indonesia are at risk so long as the abusive blasphemy law remains in place,” she added.
Ahok was deputy governor of Jakarta when he took over from Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in 2014, after the latter won the presidential election that year.
Following Ahok’s release, his eldest son, Nicholas Sean, posted a photo on Instagram showing his father in a blue shirt and jeans, and appearing to be in high spirits.
Outside the prison, Santario Oulele, said he had come from Ambon, in the Moluccas islands, to catch a glimpse of Ahok.
He waved a poster that read: “I need Ahok, Jakarta needs Ahok, Indonesia needs Ahok."
Another supporter, Frida, said she hoped Ahok would return to politics.
“He is a good, clean and transparent politician and is incorruptible. Mr Ahok can make Indonesia more advanced,” she told BenarNews, referring to Ahok’s reputation as a governor who focused much of his time in office in cleaning up corruption in the Indonesian capital region.
During his more than 20 months in prison, however, the former governor reportedly underwent a personal transformation.
In the final few days leading up to his release, Ahok circulated on Twitter a letter that he wrote by hand.
“I’m grateful I was not elected in the 2017 gubernatorial election, because if I had been reelected, I would have been only a man who controls the City Hall,” Ahok said in his letter.
“But here I have learned to control myself for all my life. If I had been elected, I would have been more arrogant and rude and hurt more people.”
‘He wants to enjoy his freedom first’
Photos circulating on social media later in the day showed Ahok with his family and fiancé, Puput Nastiti Devi, a policewoman whom he will marry in February, local media said.
Ahok divorced his wife, Veronica, while he was serving time in prison.
His former deputy at Jakarta’s City Hall, Djarot Saiful Hidayat, said Ahok planned to take trips to Bali, his home island of Belitung, and go to Japan for a vacation.
“He wants to enjoy his freedom first. He wants to enjoy life,” Djarot told reporters.
Djarot also said Ahok would establish a foundation called the BTP Foundation, to help people in need.
“In essence, he wants to help many people later,” Djarot said.
Prasetyo Edi Marsudi, a close friend of Ahok who leads the Jakarta city council, said Ahok had accepted invitations to give speeches in Japan, New Zealand and Europe, and would also appear on a new channel on YouTube named “BTP,” the South China Morning Post reported.
Meanwhile, President Jokowi, Ahok’s ex-boss at city hall, said there was no immediate plan to meet his former deputy governor.
“Mr Ahok has gone through the legal process and has served his sentence, so it will be up to him to do what he wants to do,” Jokowi said.
‘Is he repentant?’
Last August, the president surprised many people by announcing that he had picked Ma'ruf Amin, the 75-year-old chairman of the Indonesian Council of Muslim Scholars (MUI), as his running mate for the April 2019 presidential election.
He said the ticket would represent a “nationalist-religious combination.”
Ma’ruf had been instrumental in leading calls among conservative Muslims for Jokowi’s former deputy at Jakarta city hall, Ahok, to be jailed on the blasphemy charge in May 2017.
On Thursday, a spokesman for a Muslim group that spearheaded the protests against Ahok that helped bring about his downfall as governor, said his words would still be scrutinized.
“We will see what he will be like. Is he repentant? If we still insults religion again, we will report him again,” Novel Bamukmin told BenarNews.
Novel said he hoped Basuki would have a better life after being released, and suggested that the ex-governor of Jakarta eschew politics for good.
“Hopefully he is remorseful and finds his way,” he said.
Ahok’s attorney, I Wayan Sudirta, said his client was in good health.
Wayan declined to say what Ahok was planning to do after his release.
There have been local media reports that he might join the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), Jokowi’s party.
An aide to Ahok, Ima Mahdiah, said he had received invitations to speak in parts of the country, as well as overseas.
“Pak Ahok has become more patient. His emotions are sound and he is forgiving,” Wayan Sudirta told BenarNews, using the Bahasa Indonesian honorific for “father.”
“The point is he’s become a better person, better physically and mentally.”
Ahmad Syamsudin contributed to this report from Jakarta.