Ahok release an uncomfortable reminder of the power of blasphemy laws
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Ahok release an uncomfortable reminder of the power of blasphemy laws

AT around 7.30am this morning local time, former governor of Jakarta Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama evaded the media and crowds of supporters as he walked free from an Indonesian prison after serving almost two years for blasphemy.

The 52-year-old was released three months early under Indonesia’s prisoner remission laws, where prisoners are granted leniency on public holidays and for good behaviour.

For many, Ahok’s release is a time for celebration as he remains very popular among many voters. But for others it is a harsh reminder of the power of the antiquated blasphemy laws that put him in prison in the first place.

“Ahok will finally be out of prison and reunited with his family, but he should never have been imprisoned in the first place,” Elaine Pearson of Human Rights Watch said in a statement.

“Ahok’s unjust conviction is a reminder that minorities in Indonesia are at risk so long as the abusive blasphemy law remains in place.”

As the country gears up for a general election in April, the growing influence of hardline Islamists is once again a consideration in the political landscape.

Many believed Ahok was prosecuted purely for political reasons as he was front-runner in the Jakarta gubernatorial race at the time of his arrest.

SEE ALSO: Indonesia’s controversial blasphemy law claims another victim

The ethnic Chinese Christian was accused of blasphemy in 2016 after a doctored video circulated allegedly showing him quoting a passage from the Quran. The comments sparked widespread protests as hardline Muslims groups used the incident to insist he be jailed.

Ahok went on to lose the Jakarta election and after his conviction in May 2017 was sent to a prison in East Jakarta. He was later moved to Mako Brimob prison, a high-security prison usually used for convicted terrorists.

“Ahok’s prosecution showed non-Muslims and many Muslims that the freedoms of expression and religion in Indonesia are tenuous,” Human Rights Watch said.

“Non-Muslims learned that they need to be especially careful before making public comments about diversity and pluralism.”

Abu Bakar Bashir, described as the “mastermind” behind the 2002 Bali bombings, was also set to be released this week. Analysts speculated, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo planned the release of the radical cleric to counter Ahok’s release in the eyes of strict Muslim voters.

The move was a sign of the “anxiety in Jokowi’s camp about the potential impact of Ahok’s release,” Tim Lindsey, director of the Centre for Indonesian Law, Islam and Society at the University of Melbourne, told ABC News.

“[Ahok] is closely associated with Jokowi; if he releases Bashir, who is a poster-boy of hardliners, then any attempts to re-raise Ahok’s blasphemy charge and slur Jokowi with it would be countered by the release of Bashir,” he said.

SEE ALSO: Group demands repeal of Indonesia’s blasphemy laws after Ahok verdict

Jokowi has since backtracked on the decision after receiving domestic and international backlash. But the idea behind it shows the president’s desire to be accepted by the increasingly influential Muslim groups in the country.

The blasphemy law that led to Ahok’s incarceration is a dangerous weapon for such groups to attack religious minorities and use against political opponents, Pearson believes.

“The Indonesian government should abolish the blasphemy law and other discriminatory regulations,” Pearson said.

“As long as the blasphemy law exists, Islamists will use it to bring wrongful prosecutions and even more discriminatory regulations against religious minorities.”