Indonesian Cleric Gets 4 Years for Lying About Positive COVID-19 Test Result

Ronna Nirmala
Jakarta
2021-06-24
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Indonesian Cleric Gets 4 Years for Lying About Positive COVID-19 Test Result A demonstrator holds a picture of Rizieq Shihab, an Islamic cleric, whose supporters gather outside a courtroom in Jakarta, June 24, 2021.
[Reuters]

An Indonesian court on Thursday sentenced a hardline Islamic cleric to four years in prison for saying he was not infected with COVID-19 after testing positive last November and refusing to give the government access to test results.

The ruling by the East Jakarta District Court was its second conviction of Muhammad Rizieq Shihab over pandemic-related offenses in less than a month. Outside the courthouse, hundreds of his supporters clashed with security personnel who tried to disperse them for violating COVID-19 social distancing rules.

A three-judge panel said that Rizieq, founder of the banned but influential Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI), had written to a hospital in Bogor, a city near Jakarta, asking it not to disclose information about his condition. Rizieq, a vocal critic of Indonesia’s government, sent the letter as he held gatherings attended by thousands of people upon his return home from Saudi Arabia on Nov. 10, 2020.

“We declare that defendant Muhammad Rizieq bin Shihab guilty beyond reasonable doubt of spreading false information, and deliberately causing public disturbances,” said Khadwanto, the head of the three-judge panel.

The court also sentenced the director of the Bogor hospital where Rizieq was treated, Andi Tatat, and the cleric’s son-in-law, Muhammad Hanif Alatas, to one year in prison for being accessories to spreading false information.

Khadwanto said Rizieq, 55, could seek a presidential pardon to escape the prison sentence.

Last December, the COVID-19 task force in Bogor had filed a police complaint after Rizieq and the hospital refused to disclose his test results. A month earlier, Rizieq held at least three religious gatherings attended by thousands of people.

The prosecution said Rizieq’s refusal to disclose his COVID-19 test result was a deliberate attempt to hinder the government’s efforts to control the pandemic.

A defiant Rizieq said he would appeal.

“I will fight on. To my legal team, don’t back down,” he said after the verdict was read out.

Achmad Michdan, a member of Rizieq’s defense team, said his client would lodge a legal appeal instead of asking for a presidential pardon.

On May 27, Rizieq and five of his associates were sentenced to eight months in prison for violating coronavirus restrictions by organizing events late last year that drew thousands of people. These included a gathering to celebrate the birthday of Prophet Muhammad and a wedding for Rizieq’s daughter.

Indonesia has the largest COVID-19 caseload in Southeast Asia, with more than 2 million confirmed cases and 55,000 deaths.

On Thursday, Indonesia recorded 20,574 new COVID-19 cases, the highest daily jump, amid a surge in infections partly driven by the highly virulent Delta variant, which was first detected in India.

‘Far from justice’

Outside the East Jakarta District Court on Thursday, Rizieq’s supporters pushed a police car into a river, after police tried to disperse them for not socially distancing

Police arrested dozens of the supporters on suspicion of carrying crude weapons and provoking the crowd, East Jakarta police chief Erwin Kurniawan said.

“We negotiated with the coordinator, but we did not agree to their demand,” Erwin told reporters.

More than 3,000 soldiers and police were deployed to provide security during the trial.

Rizieq’s supporters were not the only ones questioning the cleric’s trials.

One legal expert, Abdul Fickar Hadjar of Jakarta-based Trisakti University, wondered why Rizieq was probed for spreading false news instead of being prosecuted under the health quarantine law.

Fickar said Rizieq had been targeted.

“This is a witch hunt. This is far from justice,” Fickar told BenarNews. 

Since founding FPI in 1998, the cleric and the group’s members have had several brushes with the law.

In the early 2000s, the FPI was notorious for raiding bars and night clubs, which they said harbored drug dealers and prostitutes.

In 2003, Rizieq was sentenced to seven months in prison for these raids.

In 2008, he was jailed for 18 months after being found guilty of inciting FPI members to assault protesters from the National Alliance for Freedom of Religion and Beliefs.

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

A 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 last December 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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