Supporters of firebrand Indonesian Muslim leader Rizieq Shihab have clashed with police during a demonstration in Jakarta, after demanding their spiritual figurehead be released from police detention.
Several hundred protesters had gathered in the capital of the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation on Friday, with scuffles breaking out after police told the group that large gatherings were prohibited amid the pandemic.
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“For the safety of our souls … the police and the military will disperse [protesters] and act decisively,” a police officer told protesters, blasting the message through a sound system.
The police have been investigating the controversial scholar for violations of health protocols during the pandemic after large gatherings to mark his return to Indonesia in November after fleeing to Saudi Arabia in 2017.
Indonesia is grappling with the worst coronavirus outbreak in Southeast Asia, averaging more than 6,000 new cases a day this week.
Police deployed thousands on the streets of Jakarta on Friday to guard the protest, with a new requirement for people to present a negative rapid COVID-19 test to enter the capital likely thwarting some supporters from joining the rally.
Rizieq is the leader of the Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI). His return to Indonesia was marked with events attended by thousands of his followers.
Rizieq had left for Saudi Arabia amid allegations that he had violated the country’s anti-pornography laws by exchanging graphic messages and nude pictures over the messaging app WhatsApp with a woman.
The calls for his release also come after six of the scholar’s bodyguards were shot dead following a clash with police on a highway earlier this month.
The FPI, once notorious for raiding bars and brothels, has become more politically influential in recent years, particularly after helping orchestrate mass rallies against Jakarta’s former Christian governor in 2016 that were the largest in decades.