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Blasphemy trial against Jakarta governor Ahok opens

The governor, who is the first ethnic Chinese Christian to lead Jakarta in more than 50 years, rejects the charges. Major public protests helped prompt the trial.

A minority Christian governor sobbed in a Jakarta courtroom Tuesday on the opening day of his trial, denying blasphemy charges for allegedly defaming Islam.

In September Governor Basuki Tjahaja  Purnama said his political opponents had used a verse from the Quran to deceive voters - sparking public outrage and the blasphemy charges that could land him in jail for five years.

The controversy erupted when a video appeared online, showing Purnama lightheartedly saying that people were being deceived if they believed his detractors who asserted that the Quran prohibits Muslims having a non-Muslim leader.

"I understand the charges but I don't understand why I'm being accused of blasphemy," Purnama said after prosecutors read out the indictment. 

Blasphemy, still considered a crime in much of the world, is a supposed insult of a religion or deity.

Purnama, who is the first Chinese Christian governor to lead the capital, Jakarta, in more than 50 years, is seeking a second term in elections slated for February.

"It is clear what I said in the Thousand Islands was not intended to interpret the [Quran], moreover to insult Islam or the ulema," said the governor, who is more commonly known by his nickname, Ahok. Ulema is the word commonly used for religious scholars in Islam.

Outside the courthouse 100 Muslims called for Purnama to be jailed and chanted "God is great."

Security has been tight for the trial after the largest street protests in nearly two decades. More than 200,000 demonstrators appeared at one rally. They demanded Purnama's arrest, and urged voters not to re-elect him in February.

Indonesien Blasphemie Prozess Basuki Tjahaja Purnama Protest (picture-alliance/AP Photo/D. Alangkara)

A banner depicts Jakarta's Governor Purnama behind bars

Polls tighten ahead of election

His two rivals in the upcoming election are both Muslims, and Purnama appears to have fallen behind one of them in opinion polls.

The trial is being broadcast on live television. The governor also has his supporters outside the courtroom.

"He is absolutely suited to be governor. The city has come a long way in terms of development," said Charles Simanjuntak, 46, a supporter of the governor who rejects the charges against Ahok.

Among the protesters opposed to the governor, one group held up a placard reading "Jailing Ahok = fair government."

Purnama's term as governor has been marked by plaudits for shaking up the city's sleepy bureaucracy and for taking steps to ease the city's notorious traffic jams. But his harsh language and insistence on clearing the city's slums has alienated many voters.

President Joko Widodo is seen as an ally of Purnama's - he has blamed "political actors" for fueling the protests, but declined to elaborate. Widodo has faced widespread criticism for not doing enough to protect the country's religious minorities.

Indonesia has the world's largest Muslim population, but the country of 250 million also has large Christian, Hindu and Buddhist communities and dozens of groups that follow traditional beliefs.

bik/msh (Reuters, AP, AFP, dpa)