Indonesia court gives hardline cleric jail term for flouting COVID-19 curbs

Rizieq Shihab, the leader of Indonesian Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), is greeted by supporters at the Tanah Abang, Jakarta, Indonesia, November 10, 2020. REUTERS/Ajeng Dinar Ulfiana

JAKARTA, May 27 (Reuters) - An Indonesian court sentenced on Thursday hardline Muslim cleric Rizieq Shihab to eight months in prison and fined him 20 million rupiah ($1,400)for breaching coronavirus curbs after his return last year from self-imposed exile.

A livestream of the court hearing showed Rizieq, the spiritual leader of an outlawed Islamist vigilante group - the Islamic Defender’s Front (FPI) - dressed in a white tunic, turban and face mask, clutching prayer beads.

Judge Suparman Nyompa handed Rizieq the prison term for violating the health quarantine law in relation to several mass events, including his daughter's wedding, which was attended by thousands.

Separately, he was fined for an event held at an Islamic boarding school in West Java.

Prosecutors had sought a two-year prison sentence for inciting his followers to attend mass gatherings, though he was cleared of this charge.

Some 3,000 police officers were deployed to guard the courthouse in East Jakarta ahead of the verdict, but there were no big protests by his supporters.

Rizieq came back to Indonesia in November after three years in Saudi Arabia, where he had fled while facing charges of pornography and insulting the state ideology. Both charges were later dropped.

Thousands of his followers had thronged the airport to celebrate his return, and then joined mass events in the days that followed despite rules to limit gatherings as Indonesia grappled with the worst coronavirus outbreak in Southeast Asia.

His legal team had claimed the cases were politically motivated and part of efforts to silence the cleric, who has a large and vocal following in the world's biggest Muslim-majority country.

The FPI has become politically influential in Indonesia in recent years, and was among several Islamic groups that staged rallies in 2016 to bring down Jakarta's then Christian governor on charges of blasphemy. The mass protests against the governor caused deep anxiety within the government of President Joko Widodo about a perceived Islamist threat.

The government has since sought to crackdown on some Islamist groups, including banning FPI and Hizb-ut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI).

In December, police killed six of Rizieq's supporters in a shootout, saying they acted in self-defence after weapons were pointed at them. The FPI accused the police of carrying out extrajudicial killings.

Reporting by Kate Lamb in Sydney and Agustinus Beo Da Costa in Jakarta; additional reporting by Stanley Widianto; Editing by Ed Davies & Simon Cameron-Moore

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