An Indonesian court has jailed hardline religious leader Rizieq Shihab for eight months and fined him 20 million Indonesian rupiah ($1,400) for holding sermons and other gatherings that drew tens of thousands of followers in breach of the country’s coronavirus rules after his return last year from self-imposed exile.
The prison term comes several months after Indonesia banned Rizieq’s Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) following a gun battle in which police shot dead of his followers.
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The East Jakarta court on Thursday found Rizieq violated Indonesia’s health quarantine law by urging supporters to attend sermons, a celebration of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, and his daughter’s wedding. All of which drew thousands of people in a country that has endured the worst COVID-19 outbreak in Southeast Asia.
“The defendant has been found guilty of violating health protocols,” judge Suparman Nyompa told the hearing. Rizieq was also fined for an event held at an Islamic boarding school in West Java.
A live stream of the court hearing showed Rizieq dressed in a white tunic, turban and face mask, clutching prayer beads.
He has been in custody since his arrest in December and the court said his jail sentence would be reduced to three months to account for time already served.
Five other senior FPI members each got eight-month jail terms for organising the mass gatherings.
Some 3,000 police officers were deployed to guard the court ahead of the verdict but there were no big protests by his supporters. Local media said nearly two dozen people were briefly detained.
Rizieq returned to Indonesia in November after three years in Saudi Arabia, where he had fled while facing charges of pornography and insulting the state ideology. Both charges were later dropped.
Thousands of his followers had thronged the airport to celebrate his return and then joined mass events in the days that followed despite rules limiting the size of gatherings.
His legal team had claimed the cases were politically motivated and part of efforts to silence the Muslim leader, who has a large and vocal following.
Shihab, who has served jail time in the past, including for an attack by FPI members on an interfaith gathering in 2008, denied the latest charges and said he may appeal.
He was arrested shortly after Jakarta police shot dead six FPI followers in a highway gun battle that authorities described as an act of self-defence – a claim disputed by the group.
The FPI has become politically influential in Indonesia in recent years, and was among several religious hardline groups that staged rallies in 2016 to bring down Jakarta’s then Christian governor on charges of blasphemy. The mass protests against the governor caused deep anxiety within the government of President Joko Widodo about a perceived threat.
Indonesia banned the hardline group last year.