Tearful Ahok asks for mercy 

Basuki Tjahaja Purnama or Ahok. Source: Flickr

The ethnically Chinese, Christian governor of one of the world’s largest Muslim-majority cities delivered a tearful defence at the start of his blasphemy trial.

The court in central Jakarta was surrounded by protesters demanding that Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama or Ahok, 50, be imprisoned. A smaller group of supporters of the governor gathered to back the straight-talking Ahok. On the economic front, Indonesia’s exports appeared to rise at the fastest pace in more than two years in November on an annual basis, while imports rose marginally, a Reuters poll showed.

The median forecast of 11 analysts in the poll was for 10-per-cent yearly growth for November’s exports, the strongest pace since August 2014. Exports grew 4.60 per cent in October.

In court the normally brash, outspoken Ahok wept as he told the five judges that his Muslim godparents had taught him Islamic values as a child and he would never disrespect them by insulting the religion. In September he casually referred to a verse in the Quran that says Muslims should not take Christians or Jews as leaders.

The remark, he said, was directed at those who used the verse incorrectly “because they don’t want to compete fairly in the elections”. “In this case, perhaps my language might have given the wrong perception or interpretation from what I had intended or meant,” Ahok told the court.

Ahok called for the judges to clear him “so I can go back to serving the citizens of Jakarta and developing the city”.

The trial continues next Tuesday with Ahok potentially facing five years in jail.

Video of his speech spread online, sparking anger among many Muslims in Jakarta.

Religious tensions have been rising in Java.

On Saturday, Jakarta police said they had foiled a plot to bomb the presidential palace by a female extremist linked to Islamic State.

At the weekend President Joko Widodo reiterated Indonesia’s commitment to its motto, “unity in diversity”.

“The Indonesian people believe that through democracy, Indonesia will become a better country,” the president said.

Nearly 90 per cent of Indonesians are Muslim, but six religions are recognised and Indonesia has a secular political system.

But once-marginal groups like the Islamic Defenders Front have become increasingly influential and adept at using social media to spread their Islamist message directly, sidelining mainstream religious groups.

Analysts say Ahok, who is seeking reelection in February, has angered the poor with his moves to clear the crowded, dirty slums.

For the Islamists, Ahok was “the perfect gift”, said Greg Fealy, a scholar of Indonesian politics at Australian National University.

If convicted it would “put a stop to pluralism because it doesn’t give space for minorities to be a part of the political fabric”, said Tobias Basuki of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta.