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Indonesian cleric turns himself in over COVID violation

December 12, 2020

Hardline Islamic cleric Rizieq Shihab is accused of inciting people to breach coronavirus curbs by holding crowded events. On his recent return from self-exile in Saudi Arabia, he declared plans for a "moral revolution."

Indonesian Islamic cleric Rizieq Shihab
Indonesian Islamic cleric Rizieq Shihab speaks to his followers upon arrival from Saudi ArabiaImage: Fajrin Raharjo/AFP/Getty Images

Indonesian firebrand cleric Rizieq Shihab has turned himself in to police, a day after authorities warned they would arrest him after he ignored several summonses by organizing public events that broke coronavirus rules.

The leader of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) group, arrived at Jakarta police headquarters on Saturday wearing a white robe, turban and face mask. Shihab told reporters that he never tried to run away or hide from the police.

"With God's permission, I can come to the Jakarta police for an investigation according to the laws and regulations," he insisted, ahead of questioning.

Jakarta police spokesman Yusri Yunus told a news conference Friday that Shihab is accused of ignoring measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 by holding an event to commemorate Prophet Muhammad's birthday and the wedding of his daughter last month that pulled in thousands of his supporters.

He said Shihab could face up to six years in prison if found guilty of inciting people to violate health regulations amid an outbreak and of obstructing law enforcement. Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan and West Java Governor Ridwan Kamil have been questioned as witnesses in the case.

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Reigniting tensions

The public gatherings organized by Shihab took place less than a week after his arrival from a three-year exile in Saudi Arabia.

When he arrived back in Jakarta on November 10, tens of thousands of supporters defied pandemic curbs to welcome him, clogging the main highway to the airport and delaying flights.

The controversial and politically influential cleric has declared plans for a "moral revolution," and warned recently of beheadings in Indonesia like the murder of the French schoolteacher last month if authorities don't arrest accused blasphemers.

On Monday, six of his supporters were killed in a shootout, police said, raising worries the clash could reignite tensions between authorities and Islamist groups in the world's biggest Muslim majority country.

Jakarta police chief Fadil Imran said the incident occurred just after midnight on a highway when the cleric's supporters attacked a police vehicle with firearms, sickles and a samurai sword.

The cleric was jailed in 2008 and left Indonesia in 2017 after facing charges of pornography, and insulting official state ideology, which were later dropped.

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Increasingly influential

With a reputation for raiding bars, brothels and violently cracking down on religious minorities, the FPI — which wants the Islamic Shariah to apply to Indonesia's 230 million Muslims — has since become politically influential.

The group has also gained significant influence through humanitarian and charity work.

In 2016, Shihab was the figurehead of the mass 212 movement against Jakarta's former Christian governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, or Ahok, who was jailed on charges of blasphemy for insulting Islam.

The 2016 mass rallies, the biggest since the fall of Suharto in 1998, raised concern about the rise of identity politics and political Islam. President Joko Widodo viewed the rallies as one of the biggest threats to his government.

Indonesia has reported more than 600,000 cases of the coronavirus, the largest tally in Southeast Asia and second in Asia only to India's 9.8 million cases.

sri/mm (AP, Reuters, dpa)