Governor of Jakarta Issues Tearful Denial as Blasphemy Trial Opens in Indonesia


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Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the governor of Jakarta, arriving at court in the Indonesian capital on Tuesday. Mr. Basuki, known as Ahok, is charged with violating blasphemy laws during a speech in September.

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Pool photo by Safir Makki

JAKARTA, Indonesia — The Christian governor of Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, tearfully denied on Tuesday that he had intended to insult Islam as his trial on blasphemy charges began.

Some analysts have said the trial is a plot to keep the governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, from being elected to the office, which he inherited when his predecessor won the presidency in 2014. Others say that his comments are being exploited in an effort to incite ethnic and religious hatred against Mr. Basuki, who is ethnic Chinese and the first Christian in nearly 50 years to govern Jakarta.

Mr. Basuki, known as Ahok, is charged with violating blasphemy laws during a speech to fishermen in September.

In that address, Mr. Basuki lightheartedly cited a verse of the Quran that warns Muslims against taking Christians and Jews as allies. He said at the time that given Indonesia’s transition to democracy in 1999, it was perfectly acceptable for Muslim voters to choose a Christian in the election for governor in February.

The remark was directed at “unscrupulous politicians who don’t want to compete fairly in the election,” Mr. Basuki, 50, told the three judges at the trial. If found guilty, he faces up to five years in jail.

After decades of authoritarian rule, Indonesia has come to be seen as a relatively stable, tolerant democracy. Suharto, the army leader who became president and ruled Indonesia for 32 years after seizing power in the late 1960s, signed a decree about three decades ago banning provocative political discourse on ethnicity, race and religion in an effort to maintain public order, and racial and religious harmony.

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A demonstration against Mr. Basuki in Jakarta on Dec. 2 drew more than 200,000 people but remained peaceful, unlike a previous protest.

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Achmad Ibrahim/Associated Press

The practice of avoiding those sensitive topics appears to have been broken in the pending election for the governorship of Jakarta, the most powerful provincial post in the country and one that President Joko Widodo, a longtime ally of Mr. Basuki’s, used as a springboard to the presidency.

“The manipulation of race and religion, such as the blasphemy charge against Ahok, in a political campaign to crush an opponent, breaks the long-held taboo against using these issues brazenly to gain political advantage,” said Douglas Ramage, a political analyst based in Jakarta.

The United States and other Western nations have long held up Indonesia, which has more than 190 million Muslims but also influential Christian, Hindu and Buddhist minorities, as a model for religious pluralism and democracy in the region. The case may threaten that reputation.

“Economics, religion, ethnicity and wealth inequality are all mixed in Indonesia in a volatile way. So a moment like this, the Ahok trial, is potentially explosive,” said Jeffrey A. Winters, a professor of politics at Northwestern University who is a longtime observer of Indonesian affairs.

Supporters of Mr. Basuki, as well as many independent analysts, have said that opposition parties fielding candidates in the coming election have used the governor’s comments to elicit ethnic and religious hatred against him.

“In Indonesia’s democratic reform era, people like Ahok are being added” to the political elite, said Yenny Wahid, co-chairwoman of the Indonesia-U.S. Council on Religion and Pluralism, an independent advocacy group.

“But some people are saying, ‘Chinese dominate the economic sphere in Indonesia. Now you want to dominate politics?’ It creates fear,” added Ms. Wahid, the daughter of former President Abdurrahman Wahid, a revered Islamic cleric who fought for religious pluralism in Indonesia.

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There was a heavy security presence outside the Jakarta court on Tuesday. Hard-line Muslim groups want Mr. Basuki jailed, and some have even called for him to be lynched.

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Mast Irham/European Pressphoto Agency

Mr. Basuki has also been attacked for his Chinese ancestry on social media in recent months.

Common slurs leveled against Mr. Basuki have suggested that he “hates Islam” and should “go back to China.” Mr. Joko, whose governing party supports Mr. Basuki’s bid for the governorship, has also been the subject of attacks.

Islamist groups, including organizations that have long demanded that the secular government be replaced by an Islamic state, have continually protested Mr. Basuki’s tenure. They have appealed to Muslim residents in the city not to vote for him. If he wins, he would be the first ethnic Chinese Christian directly elected to the office.

In recent weeks, hard-line Muslim groups have staged three mass protests in Jakarta against Mr. Basuki that drew hundreds of thousands of people — most from outside the capital — to demand that the governor be jailed for blasphemy. Some called for him to be lynched.

One march in early November ended in riots that killed one person and injured more than 200, but a protest this month that drew more than 200,000 ended peacefully.

Neither Mr. Basuki nor Mr. Joko has directly accused opposition parties of being behind the protests. But the president has said that “political actors” had taken advantage of Islamist anger to incite violence. Both opposition parties, the Great Indonesia Movement Party, also known as Gerindra, and the Democratic Party, have denied being involved in planning the protests, but they have supported the goal of jailing Mr. Basuki for blasphemy and have sought to link Mr. Joko to that controversy.

Before a large demonstration against Mr. Basuki this month, the Indonesian police arrested 11 people on charges including treason against Mr. Joko’s government.

One of Mr. Basuki’s opponents in the election is Anies Baswedan, a former minister of higher education. He is backed by Gerindra, which is led by Prabowo Subianto, a former general who lost the bitterly fought 2014 presidential election to Mr. Joko.

The other candidate is Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono of the Democratic Party, a former army officer and the son of Mr. Joko’s predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

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