Jakarta governor faces grilling over blasphemy allegations


Jakarta (AFP)

Jakarta's Christian governor was questioned by police Tuesday for the first time since being named a suspect in a blasphemy investigation seen by critics as a test of religious tolerance in Indonesia.

Police are pursuing allegations that Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known by his nickname Ahok, insulted the Koran, a criminal offence that carries a jail sentence in the world's most populous Muslim-majority country.

The allegations have sparked much anger among Muslims -- both moderate and hardline -- with more than 100,000 taking to the streets of Jakarta earlier this month demanding Purnama be prosecuted.

Purnama -- Jakarta's first non-Muslim leader in half a century and a member of Indonesia's ethnic Chinese minority -- declined to comment as he arrived for questioning at national police headquarters.

But his spokesman Ruhut Sitompul said Purnama would continue to cooperate with police, who have ordered the governor not to leave the country.

"Our country is a country based on the law. Our president told us not to interfere with the police and to respect the law," Sitompul told AFP.

President Joko Widodo met political figures this week to bolster support before further rallies planned in coming weeks by religious groups.

"The government is committed with all its force to prevent the growth of radicalism in our country," Widodo told reporters Tuesday.

The massive demonstration earlier this month turned violent as hardliners torched vehicles and attacked police, forcing Widodo to cancel a trip abroad to manage the crisis.

Police have vowed to crack down on hardliners who try to use future rallies to stoke violence.

The naming of Purnama as a suspect means authorities believe they have enough evidence to consider filing charges.

He stoked anger in September when accusing his opponents of using a Koranic verse, which suggests Muslims should not choose non-Muslims as leaders, in order to trick people into voting against him.

Purnama apologised for the remarks but pledged not to pull out of the Jakarta election in February, despite the growing controversy.

Rights groups have urged authorities to drop the case and repeal the blasphemy laws. These have been used to prosecute and imprison members of religious minorities, according to Human Rights Watch.