U.N. experts urge Indonesia to overturn Jakarta governor's blasphemy conviction

GENEVA (Reuters) - U.N. experts urged Indonesia on Monday to free Jakarta’s Christian governor, who was jailed this month for blasphemy - a conviction that risks encouraging Islamists to challenge secularism in the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation.

FILE PHOTO: Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama is seen inside a court during his trial for blasphemy in Jakarta, Indonesia May 9, 2017 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Antara Foto/ Sigid Kurniawan/via REUTERS

Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, an ethnic Chinese popularly known as “Ahok”, was jailed on May 9 for a longer-than-expected two years under a fatwa from Indonesia’s highest Muslim clerical council and after aggressive media campaigns and violent protests.

The government should have stood up to those pressures, the three U.N. experts said.

Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo was an ally of Purnama and the verdict will be a setback for his government as it seeks to quell radical groups and soothe investors’ concerns that the country’s secular values were at risk.

“Instead of speaking out against hate speech by the leaders of the protests, the Indonesian authorities appear to have appeased incitement to religious intolerance and discrimination,” the U.N. experts said in a statement.

Letting the verdict stand would undermine freedom of religion in Indonesia, they said.

“We urge the Government to overturn Mr. Purnama’s sentence on appeal or to extend to him whatever form of clemency may be available under Indonesian law so that he may be released from prison immediately,” the experts said.

“Criminal laws that penalize blasphemy represent an unlawful restriction on freedom of expression, and disproportionately target persons belonging to religious minorities or traditional religions, non-believers and political dissidents,” they said.

The joint statement was backed by the U.N. Special Rapporteurs on freedom of religion or belief, Ahmed Shaheed, and on freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, and the Independent Expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order, Alfred de Zayas.

Indonesian authorities were not immediately available to comment but immediately after the verdict Widodo urged all sides to respect the verdict as well as Purnama’s decision to appeal.

Additional reporting by; Editing by Louise Ireland