Ex-Jakarta Governor Ahok, jailed for blasphemy, freed
He had been sentenced to two years amid mass protests in a case seen as the test of Indonesia’s religious tolerance.
Depok, West Java, Indonesia – Former Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly known as Ahok, has been released from an Indonesian prison nearly two years after being found guilty of blasphemy against Islam.
Photos posted to Instagram on Thursday showed Purnama, 52, in a chequered blue shirt in the detention centre’s office signing and exchanging papers.
“The administrative process before release this morning,” the caption read. “Freedom!”
The politician was picked up by his eldest son, avoiding the crowds of journalists and supporters at the main entrance as he left the building. His staff said he had returned to his home in the capital, Jakarta, about an hour away.
Purnama, who denied wrongdoing, was sentenced in 2017 to two years in prison under Indonesia’s blasphemy law after claims that he had insulted the Quran during campaigning for re-election. The politician – an ethnic Chinese Christian – was released more than three months early.
Supporters, who call themselves “Ahokers”, gathered in front of the detention centre early on Thursday morning. Many dressed in the blue and red chequered shirts that were their hero’s signature look.
One of them, Jasmiko, had been waiting since 6am, anxious for Ahok to be freed.
“I came all the way from Jakarta with other supporters,” Jasmiko, who uses only one name, told Al Jazeera. “He’s a great leader and had done a lot for the city.”
He said he hoped Purnama would continue to serve the country, but was sceptical that the former governor would ever lead Jakarta again.
As the capital’s top politician from November 2014 until May 2017, Purnama was known as a strong-willed and outspoken campaigner against corruption. His release comes as Indonesia gears up for presidential elections on April 17 wherein his old ally, President Joko Widodo, is vying for a second term.
But analysts doubt whether Purnama could return to politics, even if he wanted to.
“Of course, Ahok will be associated with the presidential election, but I’m assuming he will enjoy his freedom and will not automatically jump back into politics,” Adi Prayitno, a political analyst from Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University in Jakarta, told Al Jazeera.
Prayitno said that it could be risky for politicians to associate themselves with Purnama.
“They have to be rational and make a careful consideration, despite him having his loyalists. Because the dislike against Ahok among some in the Muslim community is very strong,” he added.
Purnama’s comments regarding what he believed to be a misinterpretation of certain verses in the Quran created an uproar among hardliners in the archipelago, triggering mass demonstrations in 2016, as tensions rose in Jakarta’s gubernatorial elections. As a Chinese Christian, Ahok’s case was seen as a major test of Indonesia’s religious tolerance.
“The stigma of Ahok as a blasphemer will not immediately go away,” Prasityo said. “It might be a blunder for the political party. It’s difficult when people already bring up religion.”
Call me ‘BTP’
Syamsuddin Haris, a political researcher at the Indonesian Institute of Science, agrees. He thinks Purnama’s experience during the campaign that cost him his freedom will likely steer him away from politics. “I think Ahok will not openly support one of the presidential candidates,” he said.
Nevertheless, in a letter penned a week before his release, Purnama implored his supporters to get out and vote in the coming polls.
“Ahokers don’t be non-voters,” he wrote in the letter that was posted to his Instagram account. “We need to uphold the four pillars of this country, Pancasila (state ideology), the 1945 Constitution, Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (unity in diversity), and the republic of Indonesia.”
He also asked to be called BTP – his initials – instead of Ahok as part of the process of starting life anew after prison.
Supporter Freddy Njoto said he was relieved that the politician, a divorced father of three, had been released.
“I’m just glad he is free,” he said. “Now, he can continue his fight against corruption and to serve the country, and be a good father to his children.”
Tuti, who uses only one name, had travelled from Jakarta in the hope of seeing Purnama. She was disappointed when she found out he had left, but said he remained a hero to her.
“He’s a great man,” she told Al Jazeera as she wiped away tears. “He cares about so many people, cares about the poor, he built cheap housing, eradicates corruption. What more do you want? And people put him in jail.”