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Christian mayor’s release stirs blasphemy concerns

JAKARTA, Indonesia (BP) — International religious liberty advocates are praising the early prison release of a former Christian governor in Indonesia, but decrying unjust blasphemy laws that enabled his conviction.

Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, sentenced to two years’ imprisonment in May, 2017, was released Jan. 24 from a prison in Depok, West Java, after two remissions reduced his sentence. The ethnic Chinese Christian had been convicted of blasphemy for comments he made during a 2016 reelection campaign for governor, comparable to a U.S. mayoral post.

International Christian Concern (ICC), Human Rights Watch and United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) are among those reacting to his release and calling for the repeal of blasphemy laws in the majority Muslim country.

“Although we welcome Mr. Basuki’s early release, we’re troubled by the fact that Indonesia’s blasphemy law remains on the books and continues to be enforced in other cases,” USCIRF Chair Tenzin Dorjee said upon Basuki’s release. “This law violates international human rights standards and until it is repealed, hardline and intolerant groups can continue to target religious minorities … simply for exercising their fundamental freedoms of speech and religion.”

Basuki was granted two reductions to his sentence, a 15-day remission in December 2017 and a two-month remission in August, 2018, based on good behavior and other established criteria, the Jakarta Post reported after both remissions. Previously, Basuki was due for release in April. Known by the Hakka nickname “Ahok,” Basuki has asked for supporters to use his Indonesian initials BTP instead, ICC said in a press release.

“While we rejoice at the early release of BTP given a granted remission last December,” ICC regional manager Gina Goh said, “he should never have been imprisoned in the first place.

“He was not the only victim of Indonesia’s blasphemy law,” Goh said. “He will likely not be the last one either if the Indonesian government continues to yield to radical Islamists’ requests instead of honoring religious freedom for all citizens.”

In a letter preceding his release, Basuki reportedly praised God for allowing him to lose the 2016 election and subsequently serve time in prison, according to ICC.

Had he won the election, ICC paraphrased the Twitter post written in Basuki’s language, Basuki believes he would have become “more arrogant,” and “ruder.”

“I also want to apologize to Ahokers [my supporters], all of Jakarta’s civil servants, even my haters, of all the things that I’ve said and done that have hurt you and your family,” ICC quoted Basuki.

While campaigning for reelection in September 2016, Basuki refuted political opponents who told Muslims that voting for a Christian would violate teachings in the Quran.

Basuki will venture into the oil business, host a talk show and fulfill international speaking engagements already scheduled in New Zealand, Japan and Europe, his attorney told ICC.

Indonesia’s 1945 constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but according to USCIRF, Indonesia engages in “systematic, ongoing,” and “egregious” religious freedom violations. Since 2004 in its annual report, USCIRF has listed Indonesia as a country of particular concern.

More than 71 countries have blasphemy laws or similar legislation on the books. But most countries don’t enforce the measures, USCIRF said in a December 2018 fact sheet.

In the most extreme laws, blasphemy is punishable by death in Iran, Pakistan and Mauritania, USCIRF said. Sudan allows corporal punishment by whipping, Russia punishes blasphemy by forced labor, and Kazakhstan enforces its law with forced labor. In nearly 60 countries, blasphemy carries a prison sentence, USCIRF said.