Updated at 5:36 p.m. ET on 2016-11-18
Indonesian police Wednesday named Jakarta Gov. Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama a suspect in a blasphemy case, following mass protests demanding his prosecution, but this will not bar him from seeking reelection in February, officials said.
Ahok, a Christian and first member of Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese minority to serve as governor of the capital, had been questioned by police on more than one occasion over alleged anti-Muslim comments he had made in September. On Tuesday, national police held a 10-hour, closed-door hearing in Jakarta to determine whether they should declare Ahok a suspect, during which dozens of witnesses and experts testified.
“Even though it was not unanimous, we reached an agreement that this case should be processed in an open trial,” Gen. Ari Dono, the commander of the National Police’s Criminal Investigation Department who presided over the hearing, told reporters at national police headquarters on Wednesday.
“Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, alias Ahok, has been named a suspect,” Ari said.
Ahok, who said he was still in the race for the gubernatorial election in February despite the announcement by police, is accused of blasphemous speech for telling attendees at an event in September that people might “fool them” into not voting for him by using the Quran’s Surah Al-Maida Verse 51 – which some interpret as prohibiting Muslims from having non-Muslim leaders.
Ahok apologized for the flap that he had caused, but some Muslim organizations reported him to the authorities after a video recording of the event went viral online.
Muslim anger over his remarks did not die down and led to mass demonstrations against the governor. On Nov. 4, an anti-Ahok demonstration that drew some 100,000 protesters to central Jakarta ended in violence as angry crowds attacked police barricades, set fires and looted stores.
According to the Indonesian General Election Commission, Ahok will be allowed to contest the upcoming polls, although police have now named him as a suspected blasphemer. Under the laws of Indonesia, the country with the world’s largest Muslim majority, speech deemed blasphemous or offensive to members of a particular faith is open to prosecution.
“[He is] not ineligible, unless the court later decides to sentence Ahok to five years or more,” Sumarno, chairman of the Jakarta office of the General Election Commission, told BenarNews on Wednesday.
Citing Indonesian electoral regulations, Sumarno said that a person’s candidacy for public office would be terminated if a court convicted and sentenced a candidate to the long prison term.
Reacting to Wednesday’s announcement, Ahok said he remained confident that he would still win the election, and that he would allow the potential criminal case against him to go through the courts without trying to block it.
“I am grateful to the police for the process. I will accept [this]. I think this is a good example for democracy,” MetroTV quoted Ahok as saying.
More protests coming?
Now that Ahok is officially a suspect in the blasphemy probe, one political observer expressed hope that this could calm tensions and anger among Muslims who have demanded that he be prosecuted.
“[The noise] can certainly be reduced,” Adi Prayitno, a political analyst from the State Islamic University of Jakarta, told BenarNews. “The anger of Muslims at least can be eased.”
After police made the announcement, plans of another anti-Ahok demonstration circulated, but Indonesia’s police chief urged people to hold off on more protesting because the legal process against the governor was now under way.
“So, if anyone wants to take to the streets, for what? There is only one answer – the agenda is not about Ahok,” National Police Chief Tito Karnavian said.
An earlier version incorrectly reported that Ahok was elected to the office of governor.