Trial of Jakarta governor Ahok begins as hundreds of Islamic hardliners protest

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Ahok tells court it is not possible for him to insult Islam, as angry crowds gather in the Indonesian capital for the first day of his blasphemy trial

The much anticipated blasphemy trial of Jakartas Christian governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama has opened amid tight security and mobs of Islamic hardliners chanting for his arrest.

Hundreds of protestors, some dressed in white Muslim garb, gathered outside the court in the Indonesian capital for the first day of the trial, demanding the governor be jailed for allegedly insulting Islam.

Ahok, as he is better known, has caused intense anger in Indonesia over recent months after he referred to a verse in the Quran on the campaign trail in September.

Citing Al Maidah 51 from the Islamic holy book, the straight-talking mayor told voters they should not believe religious leaders who claim the Quranic verse forbids Muslims from being led by non-Muslims. He has since repeatedly apologised for his statements.

Ahok, a Christian and member of the countrys ethnic Chinese Indonesian minority, is an anomaly in the worlds largest Muslim-majority nation.

In an emotional speech in court, Ahok said it was never his intention to cause any offence and insisted his comments were aimed at politicians incorrectly using the Quranic verse.

As a person who grew up in Islamic circles, is not possible for me to insult Islam, he told the court.

Stressing his deep respect for Islam, in his statement to the court and five sitting judges, Ahok also mentioned his beloved Muslim godparents, saying that insulting Islam was akin to causing deep offence to his own family, an infraction he would never willingly commit.

What I said was not intended to insult Al Maidah 51, let alone blaspheme Islam or offend Muslims, he said.

My remarks were directed at politicians who use Al Maidah 51 incorrectly, because they dont want to compete in elections in healthy way.

He broke down in tears twice during his statement in which he recalled how he helped poor Indonesians to perform the Hajj pilgrimage when he was a district chief a decade ago.

Ahok was responding to the official charges of blasphemy, after they were read out by prosecutors.

Under Indonesias 1965 blasphemy law, Ahok faces a maximum five-year jail term if found guilty.

The Ahok trial is being closely watched, and is viewed by many as a crucial test of Indonesias commitment to religious tolerance and diversity.

With three mass rallies against Ahok since October, the case has also drawn concerns of mob justice, the ability of the masses to pressure the Widodo administration and influence judicial outcomes.

Ahoks lawyer told reporters on Tuesday the governor is being trialled by the mob.

The protests over recent months, one that turned violent, were organized by anewly formedcoalition of Islamist groups called theNational Movement to Guard the MUI Fatwa (GNPF-MUI).

Among those most prominent in the new coalition are members of a well-known hardline group, the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), widely seen as a group of Islamic thugs.

Indonesian Muslim protesters shout slogans during a demonstration outside of the court. Photograph: Mast Irham/EPA

By seemingly bowing to pressure from the masses, and even agreeing to pray with hardline leaders at the last mass protest this December, President Joko Widodo has set a dangerous precedent, argue some analysts.

I didnt agree that the president join the rally because it legitimates people who for a long time have insulted him, undermined him and caused chaos, noted Hendardi, chairman of the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace.

I deplored the action because it gives the impression that pressure from the masses can become law, that the law on its own does not work, he added.

Ahead of the election for Jakarta Governor next February, a race that Ahok is also contesting, analysts have also suggested the case against him also has a strong political dimension.

The trial has been adjourned until 20 December.

Associated Press contributed to this report

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