JAKARTA, Indonesia – An Indonesian Christian, the former governor of Jakarta was released from jail on Thursday completing a two-year long sentence for alleged blasphemy against Islam.
Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a Chinese Christian, was Jakarta’s governor from 2014 to 2017. He was sentenced to prison that year, after being convicted of blasphemy after he charged that his opponents in his reelection race misused a Quranic verse about Muslims being ruled by non-Muslims.
A video of his comments with inaccurate subtitles was later released. Hundreds of Muslim protesters gathered outside the court and called for his imprisonment.
Similar demonstrations of 150,000 people had twice occurred against the governor. The protests were largely supported by the Islamic Defenders Front, a group that has previously been involved with violence against Christians and Shia Muslim groups.
“He’s back. My dad’s a free man! Thank you everyone for the support,” his son, Nicholas Sean wrote on Instagram, after Purnama’s release.
Human Rights Watch reported on Jan. 23 that Purnama’s case has highlighted the decline of the country’s freedom of speech and religious tolerance. Violation of a 1965 blasphemy law, which can lead to a jail sentence of up to five years, has been used to punish religious minorities in the predominantly Muslim country, the NGO said.
“[Purnama’s] unjust conviction is a reminder that minorities in Indonesia are at risk so long as the abusive blasphemy law remains in place,” said Elaine Pearson of Human Rights Watch.
Before his release, Purnama issued a letter on Instagram apologizing for any distress his comments may have caused. According to Bloomberg, in the letter, he thanked God for his prison sentence as a time to reflect on his future in politics.
“I am very grateful to God, the creator of heaven and earth, for being imprisoned. If I were re-elected in the gubernatorial election, I would have been a man who controlled the City Hall, but in here I learned to control myself forever,” he said.
Reuters reported that the former governor said he will not pursue politics at this time. Rather, Purnama said he is thinking about running a talk show and his family oil business.
Blasphemy laws can carry serious penalties in countries around the world. In Sudan and Saudi Arabia, corporal punishment, such as whipping, can be the punishment for violating blasphemy laws. In Russia and Kazakhstan, correctional labor has been prescribed as punishment for blasphemy.
A USCIRF study found in 2017 that Iran, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Qatar, and Egypt have some of the world’s most severe blasphemy laws.
Asia Bibi, a Catholic mother-of-five, was acquitted in 2018 of a blasphemy conviction eight years after she was initially sentenced to death in Pakistan. The country has never officially carried out an execution under the blasphemy law, but accusations alone have inspired mob and vigilante violence.
“Blasphemy laws are a way for governments to deny their citizens – and particularly those of minority religions – the basic human rights to freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression,” Dr. Tenzin Dorjee, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, said in a statement last October.