Indonesian Court Convicts Firebrand Cleric, 5 Supporters for Flouting Virus Restrictions

Arie Firdaus
Jakarta
2021-05-27
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Indonesian Court Convicts Firebrand Cleric, 5 Supporters for Flouting Virus Restrictions Supporters of Islamic cleric Rizieq Shihab disperse after his sentencing hearing at the courthouse in East Jakarta, May 27, 2021.
Reuters

An Indonesian court convicted and sentenced a hardline Islamic preacher and five of his associates to eight months in prison Thursday on charges of violating COVID-19 restrictions by organizing Jakarta area events that drew thousands of people last year.

The East Jakarta District Court found Muhammad Rizieq Shihab, founder of the banned but influential Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI) vigilante group, and his co-defendants guilty of violating health-quarantine orders through the mass events, which included his daughter’s wedding and a birthday celebration for Prophet Muhammad.

“We declare defendant Mohammad Rizieq Shihab guilty beyond reasonable doubt of the crime of violating the health quarantine law,” chief judge Suparman Nyompa ruled.

The three-judge panel delivered the verdict amid fortified security around the courthouse. More than 2,000 police officers were on guard outside, and barbed wire was installed for the occasion.

Police arrested 11 of Rizieq’s supporters after they forced their way into the court room despite the trial being closed to the public, officials said.

Rizieq was also ordered to pay a fine of 20 million rupiah (U.S. $1,400) for a separate gathering that attracted thousands of people near Jakarta in November.

The judge said Rizieq was given a more lenient sentence than the prosecutor demanded because he was forthcoming, had a family to support and was a respected religious figure. 

Suparman also acknowledged the perception of unfair treatment because similar large gatherings had taken place without charges being brought against violators.

Rizieq is expected to walk free in August because the sentence handed to him and the five others was retroactive, his defense lawyer said. Riziek and the others were arrested and jailed last December.

Yanuar Aziz, the cleric’s attorney, said he was happy with the outcome of the trial, which began in March.

“We are satisfied because the incitement charge against Habib Rizieq was not proven,” Aziz told BenarNews.

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

That same week, Rizieq held at least three religious gatherings attended by thousands of people, including the wedding of his daughter at his central Jakarta home, which coincided with celebrations of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday.

These events drew widespread 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, apologized publicly and promised to cancel a planned tour of the country.

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

Indonesia has the largest COVID-19 caseload in Southeast Asia, with nearly 1.8 million confirmed cases and 50,000 deaths.

In his defense plea in March, Rizieq slammed “discrimination” in enforcement of quarantine laws.

Rizieq said police did not take action against many large gatherings that flouted COVID-19 protocols. As an example, he cited crowds who got close to President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo when he visited East Nusa Tenggara province in February.

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 officers claimed self-defense after they shot and killed six of Rizieq’s supporters who were traveling in a convoy with him.

One month later, the National Commission on Human Rights said its investigation found police had acted unlawfully in the killings of at least four of those followers. 

FPI, for its part, claimed the six were victims of extrajudicial killings.

The Indonesian government officially banned the FPI in 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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