Jakarta's Christian governor was sentenced to two years in jail for blasphemy against Islam, a harsher than expected ruling in a trial that was seen as a test of religious tolerance in Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim-majority nation. (Reuters)

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Thousands of Indonesians gathered outside Cipinang prison in East Jakarta on Tuesday evening to express solidarity with a man who, just hours earlier, had been serving as their governor. Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, widely known by the nickname Ahok, was earlier sentenced by a court and taken to the prison — but not for the common crime of corruption, which is rife in Indonesia. Instead, his crime was blasphemy.

Purnama, Jakarta’s first Christian governor in decades, had suggested late last year that Jakarta's imams were misusing Koranic verses to discriminate against Christian candidates. The remarks created a furor in Muslim-majority Indonesia, prompting huge rallies by Islamists opposed to Purnama and leading, eventually, to his lopsided electoral defeat on April 19.

After Purnama's election loss, his supporters took to social media to push the idea that he should instead become the governor of Hindu-majority Bali. But that idea, never entirely serious, became fantasy this week after the court ruled against him. The five-judge panel sentenced Purnama, who is ethnic Chinese, to two years in prison.

Indonesia, the most populous Muslim-majority country in the world, has long been regarded as a political science success case — a democracy with an open political system that generally respects the rights of religious and ethnic minorities. The verdict against Purnama, however, is merely the latest demonstration of the growing influence of Islamists — on the streets and in the state bureaucracy — on Indonesia's politics.

“The rise of sectarianism and the growing power of Islamist hard-liners in Indonesia has led to a decline in freedom of expression and freedom of belief,” said Usman Hamid, Amnesty International’s Indonesia director. “Ahok is someone who is tough-talking, but that doesn’t mean he deserves to be imprisoned. He’s not a corrupt leader stealing the money of the state, like so many others do.”

Amnesty International and other civil rights organizations have called on Indonesia to repeal its blasphemy law.

Many worry that the law and the growing religious intolerance in Indonesia will deter its ethnic and religious minorities from entering politics.

Sofyan Tan, an ethnic Chinese Christian member of parliament from Medan, in North Sumatra province, said Islamist fury against Purnama reminded him of the time he ran for mayor of Medan but lost after a hate-filled campaign spearheaded by Muslim religious leaders.

“There was nothing weird about this,” he said of the Islamist campaign against Purnama. “Racist attitudes are still with us.”

The court’s decision disregarded the prosecutor’s recommendations that Purnama be given a suspended sentence and avoid prison time, in part because of his service to Jakarta. The verdict’s reasoning essentially dovetailed with that of the Islamist hard-liners who argued that Purnama's statements on the campaign trail were a direct attack on the Koran.

Among some observers, the ruling has raised doubts about the competence and objectivity of Indonesia’s judiciary, which continues to be hobbled by high-level corruption scandals, including one that led to the arrest of a judge on the nation's highest court this year.

“This decision has got to raise questions about what millions spent on judicial reform since the fall of Suharto have achieved: almost nothing,” wrote Sidney Jones, director of Jakarta’s Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, referring to judicial reforms instituted during Indonesia’s transition to democracy two decades ago.

But Tan, the ethnic Chinese lawmaker, said it was too soon to give up on Indonesia. “This is the process of building towards a mature democracy,” he said. “Minority groups aren’t allowed to give up. We have to continue to love our country and fight for a better future.”

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