JAKARTA, Indonesia — Former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known by his nickname Ahok, was released from prison Thursday morning after serving almost two years on charges of blasphemy against Islam.
The conviction and detention of an ethnic Chinese Christian governor after a popular campaign against him was widely seen as a sign of the growing power of political Islam in Muslim-majority Indonesia, which has positioned itself as a moderate, secular and pluralist country.
The same forces that brought down Purnama, 52, for allegedly insulting Islam in a doctored video, are expected to play a crucial role in Indonesia’s presidential election set for April.
In an Instagram post, Purnama’s son, Nicholas Sean Purnama, confirmed his release. “He’s back. My dad’s a free man! Thank you everyone for the support,” he said. Supporters of the former governor gathered outside the detention center at 7:30 a.m. wearing checkered red, blue and white shirts in a nod to Purnama’s outfit of choice when he was governor.
His term in prison, which was reduced by 3½ months for good behavior, started with a quip he made during a public event in 2016. He told supporters, among them many Muslims, that they should not vote based on candidates’ religious beliefs, criticizing some people’s view that Muslim voters cannot vote for non-Muslims.
The video was later edited so that it appeared Purnama was insulting the Koran rather than those who exploited religion. The video was then posted on social media and immediately drew ire from Islamist hard-liners, who held large demonstrations.
Their opposition mushroomed into a formidable movement that underscored the growing influence of Islam in Indonesian politics. Calling itself the 212 Movement, based on the date of the biggest demonstration, the campaign started out with one demand: Purnama’s imprisonment.
The movement, however, has now gone into politics. Opposition presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, a retired general, attended one of its rallies last month, playing to Islamist forces as part of his bid to unseat President Joko Widodo.
The man behind the doctored video, Buni Yani, was sentenced to 18 months in prison for violating Indonesia’s electronic and transactions law, but he has yet to serve time. He also now works for Subianto’s election campaign.
The rallies against Purnama sank his once-promising political career as the popular governor of Jakarta. He lost the gubernatorial election in April 2017 and then a month later was convicted under the blasphemy law, a contentious piece of legislation that has been used to target political opponents and ethnic and religious minorities.
Under Widodo’s rule so far, 22 people have been convicted under the law, according to Andreas Harsono of Human Rights Watch. Among them was a Chinese Indonesian mother of four named Meiliana, who was sentenced to 1½ years in prison for asking a mosque near her house to lower its speakers’ volume.
While Widodo is seen as a moderate figure, with no ties directly to the military, he has picked a cleric, Maruf Amin, as his running mate in what has been seen as an acknowledgment of the rising importance of political Islam.
Despite Purnama’s former popularity as governor of Indonesia’s largest city, his political career is likely to be over.
“It’s not easy for someone like Ahok who’s been accused that way to be accepted again,” said Harsono. “Unless things change — say, that there’s a better consciousness among Indonesians that discrimination in the name of religion will hurt its nation-building — only that way can Ahok reenter politics.”
The grandson of a miner from Guangzhou, China, Purnama was raised on the Indonesian island of Belitung, east of Sumatra.
During his time as governor, he improved health care and education in Jakarta and was known for his bluntness in scolding underperforming bureaucrats. He was also known, albeit less popularly, for overseeing the demolition of slum neighborhoods and replacing them with public parks or commercial developments.
Before his release from prison, he wrote a letter advising his supporters not to abandon politics and reiterated his apology if his words “hurt the feelings of all of you and your family.”