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200,000 join blasphemy protest against Jakarta governor

Published 02/12/2016

Muslims pray during a rally against Jakarta's minority Christian governor Basuki
Muslims pray during a rally against Jakarta's minority Christian governor Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama (AP)

At least 200,000 conservative Muslims have rallied peacefully in the Indonesian capital in a second major protest against its minority Christian governor, who is being prosecuted for blasphemy.

The controversy erupted in September when a video circulated online of Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja criticising detractors who claim the Koran prohibits Muslims from having a non-Muslim leader.

President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo, a political ally of the governor who angered hardliners by being out of the city during the first protest, unexpectedly went to the national monument to join Friday prayers with the sprawling crowd.

He called for protesters to leave peacefully. They cheered and then broke into chants calling for the governor's arrest, but later streamed out of the area without incident and marched to a major traffic junction before dispersing.

Police said 10 people including some prominent Indonesians had planned to use the mass protest to try to overthrow the government, and were arrested before the demo began for suspected treason and other crimes

Eight arrested for alleged treason include Rachmawati, the daughter of Indonesia's founding president and the younger sister of former president Megawati Sukarnoiputri; retired army General Kivlan Zein; and musician-turned-politician Ahmad Dani.

Two other people were arrested for alleged crimes under Indonesia's law on electronic information and transactions.

National Police spokesman Boy Rafli Amar said the group "intended to incite people to overthrow the legitimate government", adding that officers have stepped up an investigation of the group in the past three weeks.

The protests have challenged the image of tolerance associated with Islam in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, and has shaken the government of Jokowi, who accused unnamed political actors of trying to undermine him. The son of former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is vying against Ahok for Jakarta governor in elections set for February.

Organisers had agreed to concentrate the protest around the monument to reduce disruptions, but the area quickly overflowed. National Police spokesman Rikwanto estimated 200,000 people were on the streets.

Police put 22,000 officers and 5,000 soldiers on standby.

A November 4 protest against Ahok, the first ethnic Chinese to be Jakarta governor and the first Christian in half a century, attracted about 100,000 people. After nightfall, it turned violent, with one death and dozens injured.

Rizieq Syihab, leader of the Islamic Defenders Front, a vigilante group that helped organise the demonstrations, gave a fiery speech to the protest in which he said Indonesia would be peaceful if there was no blasphemy and other "problems" such as gay people.

Speaking on the main stage at the national monument, National Police chief General Tito Karnavian called for the protesters to support the legal process in the blasphemy case.

The accusation of blasphemy has animated the political opponents of Ahok and Jokowi, including hardliners who have used the issue to seize a national stage for their extreme agenda, which includes the imposition of Shariah law in a secular nation.

Ahok's blasphemy case took a step forward on Thursday when it was formally accepted for trial. The offence is punishable by up to five years in prison.

Police say he cannot leave the country during the case, but hardline Muslim groups continue to demand his arrest.

AP

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