Firebrand Indonesian Cleric Claims Discrimination in COVID-19 Violation Trial

Ronna Nirmala
Jakarta
2021-03-26
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Firebrand Indonesian Cleric Claims Discrimination in COVID-19 Violation Trial Muhammad Rizieq Shihab, a cleric and founder of the now-banned Islamic Defenders Front, reads from a document at the East Jakarta District Court as he stands trial on charges of violating COVID-19 restrictions, March 26, 2021.
Photo courtesy of Rizieq’s legal team

A hard-line Indonesian cleric slammed “discrimination” in enforcement of quarantine laws as he appeared in court for the first time on Friday to respond to charges that he violated COVID-19 restrictions by urging others to attend his gatherings last year.

Muhammad Rizieq Shihab, founder of the now-disbanded Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) vigilante group whose trial opened earlier this month, said police did not take action against many large gatherings that flouted COVID-19 protocols. He cited crowds who got close to President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo when he visited East Nusa Tenggara province last month, as an example.

“There have been many gatherings that violated COVID-19 health protocols in the country since the beginning of the pandemic, by national public figures from celebrities to officials, including ministers and the president,” Rizieq said as he made his first in-person appearance at the East Jakarta Court, reading from a 55-page statement and invoking Quranic verses about justice.

“But the police and prosecutors are focusing only on the gathering to celebrate the Prophet Mohammad’s birthday in Petamburan,” he said, referring to the event at his Jakarta home that attracted his supporters in November.

He pointed out that Jokowi’s visit to East Nusa Tenggara in February attracted a crowd of “thousands of people” as the president handed out gifts.

“It is clear that legal action against [FPI gatherings] is a form of legal discrimination that violates the constitution,” said the preacher known for his firebrand rhetoric.

Court appearance

Friday’s hearing followed two sessions that were conducted via a video conference to observe COVID-19 health guidelines, despite his objection. A poor internet connection disrupted the trial’s opening session on March 16, prompting the judges to adjourn the first session until three days later.

Rizieq has insisted that he be allowed to attend hearings in person, saying he would not be able to defend himself effectively during a remote trial.

The judges finally relented after arguing that a virtual trial was warranted because Rizieq had many supporters whose presence at the court could increase the risk of COVID-19 transmission.  

In November, thousands of Rizieq’s supporters thronged Soekarno-Hatta International Airport to welcome him back to Indonesia after the cleric had spent three years in Saudi Arabia.

That same week, Rizieq held at least three religious gatherings attended by thousands of people in Jakarta and neighboring West Java. These events drew criticism and calls for authorities to take action against the violations of social distancing rules.

Rizieq paid a fine of 50 million rupiah (U.S. $3,469) to Jakarta authorities for flouting those rules and later apologized publicly.

He was arrested in December after tuning himself in for questioning in connection with the gatherings.

Rizieq faces five separate charges, including inciting others to commit a crime, by urging his followers to attend his gatherings and violating health quarantine laws. He could face up to six years in prison if convicted.

On Friday he urged the judges to dismiss the charges.

“Stop the legal process that is wrongful to me and my friends and release us unconditionally for the sake of fulfilling justice,” Rizieq said.

Defense attorney Aziz Yanuar said his client rejected the online trial because he wanted to defend himself without being obstructed by technical matters.

“It is difficult for him to provide facts when there are technical problems and poor internet connection,” Aziz told BenarNews.

The lawyer questioned an additional charge against Rizieq linked to FPI’s legal status at that time. Prosecutors accused Rizieq of violating a law on mass organizations for conducting activities on behalf of FPI because the group’s permit had expired in 2019.

“The charge did not exist in the investigation and the police case file. How did the prosecutors come up with that,” Aziz said.

Rizieq claimed that the charge related to the organization was trumped up “to sway the judges that I’m the leader of an illegal organization and a dangerous person.”

Friday’s hearing was closed to the public and the media, with only Rizieq and members of his legal team allowed inside the courtroom. His lawyers released the statement and a photo of Rizieq delivering it in court.

Outside the courthouse, dozens of the cleric’s supporters rallied after police prevented them from entering the courtroom.

A day earlier, Jakarta police spokesman Yusri Yunus said 2,000 personnel were on standby to safeguard the trial, and urged Rizieq’s supporters not to come to the court.

Supporters killed

Rizieq founded FPI in 1998, and since then, he and the group’s members have had several brushes with the law.

On Dec. 7, Indonesian police said they shot and killed six Rizieq’s supporters who were traveling in a convoy with him, claiming self-defense.

One month later, the National Commission on Human Rights said its investigation found police acted unlawfully in the killings of four of Rizieq’s followers. 

FPI, meanwhile, said the six were victims of extrajudicial killings.

The Indonesian government officially banned the FPI in late December 2020 after it accused the group of violating the law and disrupting peace and security. In addition, 35 members and former members had been convicted on terrorism charges.

The decision to ban the organization was taken jointly by Indonesia’s home, law and communications ministers, the police and counter terrorism heads, and the attorney general.

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