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Indonesia court jails firebrand maulvi for 8 months


An Indonesian court has sentenced the politically influential firebrand Maulvi to eight months in prison for violating health protocols by organizing a gathering of thousands of supporters during a coronovirus outbreak.

The three-judge panel in East Jakarta District Court, which was under heavy police and military guards, ruled that Riziq Shihab violated pandemic restrictions with the events of Prophet Muhammad’s birthday and his daughter’s wedding. He was also fined 20 million rupees ($ 1,400) for a mass gathering in West Java.

The meeting took place less than a week after his arrival from three years of exile in Saudi Arabia. Shihab has been detained since 13 December. The judges ordered that he had already been cut from his sentence, meaning he would be freed in several months.

Police on Thursday detained dozens of supporters of Shihab trying to rally in front of the court to demand the release of Shihab. More than 2,300 police and soldiers were stationed in and around the building, protected by razor wire and four water canons.

Shihab, 55, was the leader and grand imam of the now-defunct Islam Defenders Front, widely known by the Indonesian acronym FPI, which was once a political fringe. It has a long record of vandalizing nightspots, throwing stones at Western embassies and attacking rival religious groups, and wants Islamic Sharia law to apply to Indonesia’s 230 million Muslims.

Shihab’s presence at several mass gatherings in his honor attracted large crowds, with attendees ignoring the physical distance rules and many failing to wear face masks.

Five other FPI members were also sentenced to eight months in jail on a similar charge.

Prosecutors had called for a 34-month jail term and a three-year ban on Shihab playing a leadership role in any mass organization.

During the trial that began in March, Shihab denied any wrongdoing and said he was the victim of political persecution related to his strong opposition to Jakarta’s Christian governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnamma, who is an ally of President Joko Widodo.

“All of this is clearly political revenge that was wrapped and packaged in legal cases against me and my friends,” he said in his defense petition.

In a separate trial run in the same court, Shihab is also accused of hiding information about his positive coronavirus test, which allegedly made contact tracing more difficult to prevent the spread of the virus.

FPI has gained significant influence in recent years through humanitarian and philanthropic work. It was a major organizer of mass street protests against Purnama in 2016 and 2017, who were later jailed for alleged blasphemy.

The movement against Purnama brought fringe Islamic groups into the political mainstream and shook the government, exposing the union of religion with politics in Indonesia, the world’s most Muslim-populated country and the third-largest democracy.

Shihab is often critical of government policies and his statements often provoke controversy.

In 2003, he was sentenced to seven months in prison after vandalizing a bar in Jakarta. Five years later, he was again convicted and sentenced to one and a half years in prison for an attack on a religious freedom program on the National Memorial Square in Central Jakarta.

Shihab left Indonesia for a pilgrimage to Mecca in 2017, when police accused him of insulting pornography and the ideology of the official state. Police dropped both charges after one year due to weak evidence.

He has called for a “moral revolution” since coming back home on 10 November, increasing tensions with Vidodo’s administration.

The government banned FPIs in December, stating that it had no legal basis to operate as a civic organization and its activities often violated the law and caused public disorganization.

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