Global Freedom of Expression

Public Prosecutor v. Basuki Tjahaja Purnama aka “Ahok”

Closed Contracts Expression

Key Details

  • Mode of Expression
    Public Speech
  • Date of Decision
    May 19, 2017
  • Outcome
    Decision Outcome (Disposition/Ruling), Imprisonment
  • Case Number
  • Region & Country
    Indonesia, Asia and Asia Pacific
  • Judicial Body
    First Instance Court
  • Type of Law
    Criminal Law
  • Themes
    Religious Freedom
  • Tags
    Political speech, Blasphemy, Criminal Defamation

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Case Analysis

Case Summary and Outcome

North Jakarta District Court found former Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (“Ahok”) guilty of blasphemy and inciting violence after he allegedly insulted the Quran in his speech. Ahok was charged with blasphemy following the posting of an edited video segment of a speech in which it was alleged that he stated that the Quran was deceiving people to vote against him. The Court reasoned that although one of the charges of blasphemy was dropped Ahok nevertheless “legitimately and convincingly conducted a criminal act of blasphemy”, felt no remorse for what he did and his action caused unrest, ‘hurt’ Islam and divided Muslims and groups. Despite significant witness testimony in his defense and the prosecutors’ request that Ahok be given a one-year suspended sentence, the Court sentenced him to two years in prison.

Columbia Global Freedom of Expression could not identify the official legal and government records on the case and notes that the information contained in this report was derived from secondary sources and that media outlets may not provide complete information about this case. Additional information regarding the case will be updated as an official source becomes available.


During a campaigning visit to the Thousand Islands regency September 27, 2016 Ahok gave a speech in which he cited from the Quran. The  full version of his speech where he referenced the Quran, as reported by website Coconuts Jakarta, was “Ladies and gentlemen, you shouldn’t worry. The election has been moved forward, so if I’m not re-elected, I’ll step down in October 2017. So if these programs are going to run, you will still be able to reap the benefits from me. Even if I’m not re-elected as governor. I want to tell you this so you’ll be enthusiastic [about the program]. Don’t think that oh, if Ahok’s not chosen, then his programs will disappear. No, I’m here at least until October 2017. So don’t believe people – deep down ladies and gentlemen, you can’t vote for me because [these people] are lying to you using Al Maidah verse 51 and so on. That’s your right. So if you feel you can’t vote [for me] because you’re afraid to go to hell after you’ve been dumbed down, that’s fine. This is your personal calling. This program will continue regardless. So, ladies and gentlemen, don’t ever feel bad that you can’t vote for Ahok.”

Two weeks after his speech, a heavily edited 30 second version of the 1 hour and 38 minute long speech was posted online and went viral.  In the online version, Ahok was seen saying: “Ladies and gentlemen, you can’t vote for me because you’re being lied to by Al-Maidah verse 51 and so on. That’s your right. So if you feel you can’t vote [for me] because you’re afraid to go to hell after you’ve been dumbed down, that’s fine. This is your personal calling. This program will continue regardless. So, ladies and gentlemen, don’t ever feel bad that you can’t vote for Ahok.”

Several hard-line Muslim groups in Indonesia considered Ahok’s speech to be offensive alleging that Ahok was telling voters that the Quran was being used to justify the claim that Muslims should not be led by non-Muslims.  They reported the case to the police accusing him of religious defamation.

In response, Ahok stated, “I did nothing that insulted the Quran, I did not say the Quran was stupid. What I said to the local people of Thousand Islands is that if you are fooled by racists and cowards using that verse in the Quran not to vote for me, then don’t vote for me.”

It was reported that he cited the verse because it had often been used by his political opponents as well as religious hardliners to encourage people not to vote for him as he is a Christian with ethnic Chinese roots and among the minority in Muslim-dominated Indonesia. The Al-Maidah verse 51 states “O you who have believed, do not take the Jews and the Christians as allies. They are allies of one another. And whoever is an ally to them among you – then indeed, he is of them. Indeed, Allah guides not the wrongdoing people.”

Ahok subsequently apologized at the City Hall in October, 2016 but the investigation went ahead and in November the Attorney General’s Office agreed that Ahok should be prosecuted.

The trial started on December 13, 2016. Ahok was initially charged with defaming Muslim leaders under Article 156 of the Criminal Code and committing blasphemy under Article 156a. Article 156 provides that a person “who publicly gives expression to feelings of hostility, hatred or contempt against one or more groups of the population of Indonesia” shall receive a maximum imprisonment of four years or a maximum fine of three hundred Rupiahs. Group is defined as each part of the population of Indonesia that distinguishes itself from one or more other parts of that population by race, country of origin, religion, origin, descent, nationality or constitutional condition. Article 156a prescribes a maximum imprisonment of five years for any person “who deliberately in public gives expression to feelings or commits an act (a) which principally have the character of being at enmity with, abusing or staining a religion, adhered to in Indonesia; (b) with the intention to prevent a person to adhere to any religion based on the belief of the almighty God.”

In the first hearing, Ahok read out his statement against the prosecutors’ indictment claiming he had always had a harmonious relationship with Muslims. He attended Muslim schools, and he has Muslim friends whom he considers as his own family. Ahok also mentioned that he had implemented many pro-Muslim programs since he started his political career.

The Court heard from several witnesses for both sides including leaders of the hardline Muslim group Islam Defenders Front for the prosecution and politicians and neighbors for Ahok. The media were not granted access to observe the trial during witness testimony.

Witnesses testifying against Ahok included:

  1. Habib Novel Chaidir Hasan, a key member of the hardline Muslim group called Islam Defenders Front (FPI) and the head of the religious advocacy group called National Movement to Safeguard the Indonesian Ulema Council’s Fatwa (GNPF-MUI).
  2. Gus Joy Setiawan, Sharia Advocate Chairman
  3. Rizieq Shihab, The founder of Islam Defenders Front (FPI)
  4. Muchsin alias Habib Muchsin, head of FPI’s Jakarta branch
  5. Samsu Hilal, head of the Anti-blasphemy Forum

It was reported that these witnesses were not present when Ahok was giving the speech in September, 2016 and only focused on the edited short video for which Ahok was accused of religious defamation. Rizieq Shihab said “I suggest the judges detain the suspect so he won’t repeat his conduct and insult clerics. [I] am also concerned that he might escape.” Rizieq further presented notes he had written to the court which explained several Quranic verses suggesting Muslims should not elect non-Muslims as leaders.  According to an interview with Ahok after the court proceedings, one of the witnesses answered “I forget” to many of the questions posed by the judges and Ahok’s lawyer. Another witness claimed that he received WhatsApp messages and phone calls from villagers in Thousand Island immediately after Ahok finished his speech. Yet another witness admitted to being an active supporter of the Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono and Silviana Murni, the pair that ran against Ahok for the Jakarta governor election.

More than 15 witnesses testified for Ahok, including:

  1. Bambang Waluyo Djojohadikoesoemo, Golkar Party official who was present when Ahok was giving the speech at Thousand Island testified that people at the Island served Ahok with Sukun Goreng (fried breadfruit) after he finished the speech. In his own words, he said “Sukun Goreng is special because it’s the Thousand Island’s custom to respect their guests.” He also added that he does not think that Ahok could leave the Island if the islanders felt that the speech was insulting.
  2. Andi Analta Amier, Ahok’s adoptive Muslim brother who testified that his father had considered Ahok as his grandson and he helped him to develop his mining business in East Belitung. Amier said “[Since] he has a Muslim godfather, it’s almost impossible Ahok would insult Islam,”
  3. Eko Cahyono, Ahok’s former running mate and currently a vice rector at Darma Persada University Jakarta, testified that religious issues were an issue when they ran for the governorship in Bangka Belitung in 2007 and was the main reason why they lost the gubernatorial election. He stated “In sermons during Friday prayers in Bangka Belitung, religious leaders prohibited people from voting for a non-Muslim leader. Pamphlets, which encourage people not to choose a non-Muslim as their leader, were distributed; but, I didn’t know which parties were responsible for spreading them.”
  4. Fajrun, Ahok’s neighbor in Bangka Belitung, who testified that Surah Al Maidah 51 was used by a lot of Muslim people during the 2007 gubernatorial election against Ahok and that pamphlets were distributed to discredit Ahok for his religious background.
  5. Suyanto, Ahok’s Muslim driver, testified that Ahok allowed him to stop at a mosque when it was time for him to pray while he would wait in a car. He also added that Ahok often lent money to Muslim neighbors who were in need and even helped some of them financially to go on the umrah (minor haj) in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
  6. Nurkholis Masjid, a cameraman who recorded Ahok’s speech at the Thousand Island, testified that the residents who attended the event applauded Ahok several times during his speech and there was no protest.
  7. Yuli Hardi, a subdistrict head from Panggang Island, Thousand Island, confirmed what Masjid said even though he admitted that he did not carefully pay attention to the speech. He said that no residents of the Island protested during Ahok’s speech.

A language expert from Atma Jaya Catholic University in Jakarta, Bambang Kaswanti Purwo, watched the full recording of Ahok’s speech and testified during one of the hearings that Ahok did not attempt to attract Muslim voters during the speech as he had been accused by prosecutors. Furthermore, he found that the Quran reference was only a short part of the speech used to demonstrate how detractors undermined his 2007 campaign. Purwo concluded that the full speech must be heard to understand the context. The judges only considered the online edited version of the speech which caused the public uproar.

The prosecutors asked that Buni Yani, the person who edited and uploaded the impugned video of Ahok’s speech to his Facebook account along with a misleading transcription, also be held responsible as it led to the public outrage and blasphemy charges. The presiding judge Dwiarso said that Buni’s case was irrelevant to Ahok’s.

According to the source from the Jakarta Post, Columbia Global Freedom of Expression learned that Ahok and his legal team submitted pamphlets which had been distributed in order to attack him during the 2007 election as evidence, but the Court rejected them. It was also reported that the judge only allowed that seconds-long part of the video in which Ahok mentioned the Quran to be played.

The prosecutors later decided to drop the blasphemy charge (Article 156a) on April 20, 2017 due to a lack of evidence.  The remaining charge against him was defaming Muslim leaders under Article 156.


Decision Overview

Chief Judge Dwiarso Budi Santiart read the unanimous decision of the five-judge panel: Ahok was “found to have legitimately and convincingly conducted a criminal act of blasphemy, and because of that we have imposed two years of imprisonment,” he said.

In handing down a sentence that was harsher than the one-year suspended sentence requested by the prosecutors, the Judge said “The defendant feels no remorse. His action caused unrest, ‘hurt’ Islam and divided Muslims and groups”.

Ahok subsequently withdrew an appeal against conviction on May 22, 2017. On June 6 prosecutors withdrew their appeal against the two years’ sentence. This means that the ruling is final and legally binding.

Decision Direction

Quick Info

Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.

Contracts Expression

The decision contracts expression by upholding blasphemy laws that silence those with different religious views from the majority and despite Indonesia’s 1945 Constitution that guarantees freedom of expression and religion.

The case was seen internationally as a test of the country’s religious tolerance and triggered concern for freedom of speech especially across South East Asia where Indonesia was thought to be a leader in democracy and openness.

The panel of judges was comprised of four Muslims and one Hindu, three of whom were promoted after Ahok was sentenced to jail.

According to the Jakarta-based human rights organization, Setara Institute, there has been a steady increase in incidents regarding religious freedom violations in Indonesia over the last three years. The Institute recorded 208 incidents in 2016 from 197 in 2015 and 134 in 2014. The same trend has been seen in the case of acts of religious intolerance which increased to 270 in 2016 from 236 in 2015 and 177 in 2014.  Further, 140 out of 270 acts of intolerance reportedly involved state officials such as police officers and local administrators with the remaining acts being committed by local citizens and Islamic-based groups.

Global Perspective

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Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.

Table of Authorities

National standards, law or jurisprudence

Case Significance

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Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.

This case did not set a binding or persuasive precedent either within or outside its jurisdiction. The significance of this case is undetermined at this point in time.

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