Death row Christian woman has left Pakistan, lawyer says

FILE PHOTO: Governor of the Punjab Province Salman Taseer is reflected as he speaks to the media after meeting with Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman who has been sentenced to death for blasphemy, at a jail in Sheikhupura, located in Pakistan's Punjab Province November 20, 2010. REUTERS/Asad Karim/File Photo

By Saad Sayeed

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – A Pakistani Christian woman who spent eight years on death row falsely charged with blasphemy has left the country, her lawyer and media said on Wednesday, more than six months after she was acquitted by Pakistan’s top court.

Pakistani and Canadian officials have not officially commented on Asia Bibi’s reported departure, perhaps due to the sensitive nature of her case.

Bibi’s release in October sparked rioting by hardline Islamists, who rejected the Supreme Court’s verdict and warned Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government that she must not be allowed to leave the country.

They also called for Bibi, who has been staying at an undisclosed location under tight security, to be killed.

“I have inquired within available channels, and according to them she has left for Canada,” Bibi’s lawyer, Saif Ul Malook, told Reuters.

Pakistani TV channels Geo and ARY, citing unidentified sources, also reported Bibi had left the country.

Pakistan’s foreign ministry did not respond to requests for comment. A Canadian government spokeswoman said in an emailed statement: “Global Affairs Canada has no comment.”

In November, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his country was in talks with Pakistan about helping Bibi, whose family are believed to be outside Pakistan. She is widely expected to seek asylum and diplomats say she will have no problems.

Pakistan’s Supreme Court in January upheld its earlier verdict to free Bibi, but Pakistani officials have worried that her sudden departure could trigger further riots.

Islamists have criticized the government and the military for caving in to what they call pressure from the Western world.

Bibi, a farm worker and a mother of four, was convicted in 2010 of making derogatory remarks about Islam after neighbors working in the fields with her objected to her drinking water from their glass because she was not Muslim.

Her case has outraged Christians worldwide and has been a source of division within Pakistan, where two politicians who sought to help her were assassinated, including Punjab province governor Salman Taseer, shot by his own bodyguard.

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said it was “fantastic news that Asia Bibi appears to have left Pakistan safely”.

Hunt, who is due to discuss persecution of Christians with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, head of the Church of England, tweeted that Bibi’s freedom “shows that with concerted effort the right thing can happen”.

(Additional reporting by Syed Raza Hassan; Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Pakistan court upholds acquittal of Christian woman accused of blasphemy

Paramilitary soldiers stand guard outside the Supreme Court building in Islamabad, Pakistan January 29, 2019. REUTERS/Saiyna Bashir

By Asif Shahzad

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld the acquittal of a Christian woman who spent years on death row after being convicted of blasphemy, dismissing a petition filed by Islamists who have called for her execution.

“On merit, this petition is dismissed,” Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khosa said in court, saying the petitioners, led by a village prayer leader, had failed to point out any mistake in the original judgment

Asia Bibi, a farm worker, was convicted in 2010 of making derogatory remarks about Islam after neighbors working in the fields with her objected to her drinking water from their glass because she was not Muslim.

Her conviction was overturned in October, prompting protests from religious hardliners calling for her death and demanding that the government prevent her from leaving the country.

Under pressure from days of protests in the capital, Islamabad, and other cities, the government agreed to stop Bibi leaving the country until the Supreme Court heard a review petition.

Bibi, who spent eight years on death row, has been in hiding since the Supreme Court freed her in October. She has always denied committing blasphemy.

In remarks in court, Khosa was severely critical of the petitioners’ attempt to have the judgment reversed and said Bibi had been convicted on the basis of false evidence, pointing to discrepancies in testimony presented in the original case.

“You think we give the death sentence to someone on the basis of false evidence?” Khosa said. “Such lies were told that one statement doesn’t match with another.”

“Please point out any error in our judgment and we’re ready to rectify it,” he said.

“You start declaring someone deserves to be killed just on the basis of false evidence.”

Hours before the Supreme Court announced its decision, Shafeeq Ameeni, acting head of the hardline Tehreek-e Labaik group, which led the protests last year, issued a new warning to the court not to rule in favor of the “blasphemer”.

Ameeni was not immediately available for comment after the ruling.

Bibi’s case attracted headlines around the world last year, highlighting Pakistan’s strict anti-blasphemy laws which campaigners have urged the government to repeal.

Rights group Amnesty International issued a statement calling for Bibi, who is staying at an undisclosed location, to be allowed to “reunite with her family and seek safety in a country of her choice”.

“The authorities must also resist and investigate any attempts to intimidate the Supreme Court,” said Amnesty International’s South Asia campaigner, Rimmel Mohydin.

“They have a duty to protect against threats of violence to harm religious minorities or the lives of judges or other government officials.”

If allowed to do so, Bibi is expected to seek asylum abroad. In November, Canadian Premier Justin Trudeau said his country was in talks with Pakistan about helping her.

(Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Freed Pakistani Christian needs German passport to leave: lawyer

FILE PHOTO: Saiful Mulook, lawyer for Pakistani Christian woman Asia Bibi, at a news conference in The Hague, the Netherlands, November 5, 2018. REUTERS/Eva Plevier/File Photo

FRANKFURT (Reuters) – The lawyer for Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian acquitted of capital blasphemy charges, appealed on Tuesday to Germany to give her whole family citizenship to start a new life in Europe.

Saiful Mulook told a news conference in Frankfurt that Bibi was now free but she and her family needed a passport to leave the country.

Bibi, 53, was convicted of blasphemy in 2010 over allegations she made derogatory remarks about Islam after neighbors objected to her drinking water from their glass because she was not Muslim.

The Supreme Court acquitted her last month.

“The whole world is asking why she’s not coming,” Mulook told reporters. “The answer is first that to leave a country you need a visa or you require a passport of another country.”

“If the German chancellor directs her ambassador to give a passport to her, her husband and her two daughters conferring German nationality, nobody can stop her for one second because she is no longer Pakistani,” he added.

“So far, no government has come forward in such an open and free manner,” he said.

It was unclear why citizenship, rather than a visa, was necessary for her to leave Pakistan, though Mulook said pressure from religious extremists was making it harder for Islamabad to arrange her departure.

She and her family are staying at a safe house in Pakistan, despite offers of asylum from countries including Canada.

Mulook said the status of a friend of Bibi’s husband, who has a wife and five daughters, whom he would like to join them, was a sticking point. Another wife of Bibi’s husband and her three daughters were not seeking to leave Pakistan with Bibi, he added.

German officials have said that they and a number of other countries are in talks with Bibi’s family and the Pakistani government to find a way of rehousing her.

Mulook, who has himself sought refuge in the Netherlands after being threatened for taking on Bibi’s case, said Bibi had no preference as to which country she would travel to for asylum.

The German government had no immediate comment on the request for a passport.

(Reporting by Reuters Television; Writing by Thomas Escritt; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

Pakistani Christian woman acquitted of blasphemy ‘secure’, out of jail

Supporters of Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), a coalition of religious-political parties, hold flags and chant slogans as they attend a million march rally, after the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy against Islam, in Karachi, Pakistan November 8, 2018. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

By Asif Shahzad and Mubasher Bukhari

ISLAMABAD/LAHORE, Pakistan (Reuters) – A Pakistani Christian woman has been freed from prison a week after the Supreme Court overturned her conviction and death sentence for blasphemy against Islam, and she is at a secure location in the country, officials said on Thursday.

Officials dismissed some media reports that the woman, Asia Bibi, had been flown abroad, which would enrage hardline Islamists who have been protesting against her release and calling for her to be banned from leaving.

The release overnight of the mother of five prompted immediate anger from an Islamist party that has threatened to paralyze the country with street protests if her acquittal is not reversed.

Bibi, 53, was convicted of blasphemy in 2010 over allegations she made derogatory remarks about Islam after neighbors objected to her drinking water from their glass because she was not Muslim.

She always denied having committed blasphemy.

The case has outraged Christians worldwide, and Pope Francis met Bibi’s family this year, saying he prayed for her. Italy said on Tuesday it would try to help Bibi, who is Catholic, to leave Pakistan.

Pakistan’s foreign ministry denied reports that Bibi had left the country and pointed out that a review of the Supreme Court decision to free her was pending.

“Asia Bibi is completely secure at a safe place in Pakistan,” said ministry spokesman Mohammad Faisal.

“Her writ is in court, when that is decided, Asia Bibi can go anywhere she wants to, she is a free national … if she wants to go abroad, no harm in it.”

In Rome, the Catholic aid agency Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) said Bibi has been able to see her husband in an undisclosed location.

Their daughters were “close by” but had not yet seen their mother as of early afternoon, Pakistan time.

The agency, which arranged a meeting for Bibi’s husband and daughter with Pope Francis at the Vatican this year, said the family was awaiting visas but declined to disclose from which country for security reasons.

Insulting Islam’s Prophet Mohammad carries a mandatory death penalty in Pakistan, which is about 95 percent Muslim and has among the harshest blasphemy laws in the world.

No executions for blasphemy have been carried out in Pakistan but enraged mobs sometimes kill people accused of blasphemy.

Rights groups say the blasphemy law is exploited by hardliners as well as ordinary Pakistanis to settle personal scores.

Christians make up about 2 percent of the population.

‘AGITATED’

Security officials told Reuters early on Thursday that Bibi had been released from a prison in Multan, a city in the south of Punjab province.

She was flown to Islamabad and was in protective custody because of threats to her life, said three officials, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Bibi’s lawyer, who has fled Pakistan and this week sought asylum in the Netherlands, confirmed she was no longer in prison.

“All I can tell you is that she has been released,” lawyer Saif-ul-Mulook told Reuters by phone from the Netherlands, where the government said on Thursday it had offered him temporary asylum.

A spokesman for the hard-line Tehreek-e-Labaik (TLP) party, which took to the streets after the Supreme Court ruling, said her release violated a deal with the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan to end the protests.

“The TLP activists are agitated as the government has breached the agreement with our party. The rulers have showed their dishonesty,” party spokesman Ejaz Ashrafi told Reuters.

Under the deal, the government said it would not block a petition to the Supreme Court to review Bibi’s acquittal in light of sharia, Islamic religious law, the TLP said.

It also said the government promised to work to ensure Bibi could not leave the country.

If the government allows Bibi to leave, it would likely face more paralyzing protests from the TLP and other Islamist parties.

(Reporting by Asif Shahzad and Saad Sayeed in ISLAMABAD, and Philip Pullella in ROME, Bart Meijer in AMSTERDAM; Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by Grant McCool, Robert Birsel)

Pakistan shuts phone networks as Islamists protest over Christian woman

By Mubasher Bukhari and Saad Sayeed

LAHORE/ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistan suspended mobile phone networks in major cities on Friday and many schools were closed as Islamist groups protested for a third day against the acquittal of a Christian woman facing the death penalty for blasphemy.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday overturned the conviction of Asia Bibi, a mother of five, and ordered her freed. She had been living on death row since 2010 after being convicted under Pakistan’s tough blasphemy laws.

The case outraged Christians worldwide and has been a source of division within Pakistan, where two politicians who sought to help Bibi were assassinated.

The Supreme Court decision enraged hardline Islamists, in particular, members of a group called the Tehreek-e-Labaik (TLP), who have taken to the streets to call for the death of the judges who made the decision and the ouster of the government.

Authorities, including members of the main military security agency, held negotiations with the leader of the group late on Thursday but they came to no agreement, the TLP leader, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, said.

The spokesman for the military said the armed forces hoped the “matter is resolved without the disruption of peace”.

“Both sides should talk amongst themselves, and we should not reach the stage where this matter comes under the ambit of the armed forces,” he told state-run PTV channel.

On Friday, telephone networks were down in the capital, Islamabad, and the eastern city of Lahore, where pockets of TLP protesters blocked main roads.

“All services have been shut down by the government,” said a customer service representative at one of Pakistan’s main mobile phone companies, while declining to elaborate.

Authorities in Pakistan often shut down mobile phone networks in the hope of distrusting the organization of protests.

Schools across the most populous province of Punjab were closed.

In the commercial hub of Karachi in the south, normally bustling markets were shuttered.

A Reuters photographer saw about 100 protesters using stones, pieces of wood and motor-bikes to create a barricade across one main road.

Bibi’s whereabouts were not known on Friday. Her family has been in hiding this week.

(Reporting by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Pakistani Christian woman’s blasphemy ordeal highlights plight of minorities

FILE PHOTO: The daughters of Pakistani Christian woman Asia Bibi pose with an image of their mother while standing outside their residence in Sheikhupura located in Pakistan's Punjab Province November 13, 2010. REUTERS/Adrees Latif/File Photo

By Asif Shahzad and Kay Johnson

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Until one sweltering day in 2009, Asia Bibi led a simple life with her husband and children in rural Pakistan. Hers was one of only three Christian families in her village but they’d never had much trouble from Muslim neighbors, relatives say.

“She was an innocent, loving and caring ordinary woman,” said Bibi’s brother-in-law, Joseph Nadeem. “She and her husband both were farm workers. They had five kids and a happy life.”

Then, a dispute over a cup of water with fellow field laborers led to Bibi being sentenced to death for blasphemy against Islam. She spent eight years on death row before Pakistan’s Supreme Court overturned her conviction this week and ordered her freed.

Bibi’s ordeal has become symbolic of the difficulties that Pakistan’s tiny Christian population, only 2.6 percent of the country of 208 million, faces along with other religious minorities as hard-line Islamist movements grow stronger.

Her family is now in hiding for fear of attacks by Islamists angry at the ruling, and still waiting to be reunited with Bibi

“You know my two youngest daughters were below age of 10 when their mother went away … They don’t remember spending much time with her,” Bibi’s husband, Ashiq Masih, told Reuters by telephone.

The family has four daughters and one son, he said.

“We are thankful to the court that it decided the case considering us human beings instead of any discrimination on the base of faith or religion.”

He said Bibi, who is about 50, has not been released from prison pending arrangements for her safety.

Thousands of members of a hardline Islamist party have blockaded roads for two days in major Pakistani cities to protest against the Supreme Court’s decision, even calling for the assassination of the judges who made the ruling.

“She can’t be safe here,” brother-in-law Nadeem said. “You know what’s going on outside. We want things to settle down before we go ahead for her release.”

Supporters of the religious party Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam - Fazal-ur Rehman (JUI-F) raise their hands as they chant slogans, after the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy against Islam, during a protest rally in Karachi, Pakistan November 1, 2018. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

Supporters of the religious party Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam – Fazal-ur Rehman (JUI-F) raise their hands as they chant slogans, after the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy against Islam, during a protest rally in Karachi, Pakistan November 1, 2018. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

DISCRIMINATION

The rise of Islamist parties such as Tehreek-e-Labaik (TLP), which has made “death to blasphemers” its main rallying cry, has many of Pakistan’s religious minorities worried.

Though the TLP gained no National Assembly seats in a general election this year, it won 2.2 million votes nationwide. The party’s fiery rhetoric also pulled much of the political discourse to the right in this deeply conservative country.

Pakistan is about 96 percent Sunni and Shi’ite Muslim, with Christians, Hindus and members the Ahmadi faith making up tiny minorities.

Christians in Pakistan are often targeted in attacks by militants, including a pre-Christmas suicide bomb attack last year on a Methodist church that killed more than 50 people in the southwestern city of Quetta. The attack was claimed by Islamic State’s local affiliate.

Christians are also frequent targets of discrimination and violence. In 2013, a mob burned down more than 125 Christian homes in a neighborhood of Lahore after rumors spread that a Christian resident had insulted the Prophet Mohammad.

Religious minorities are also far more likely to be charged with blasphemy than Muslims.

Despite their tiny percentage of the population, Christians, Hindus and Ahmadis made up half of the 1,549 cases of blasphemy filed over three decades through 2017, according to Peter Jacobs, the Christian head of the Centre for Social Justice, which compiled the numbers.

Pakistan’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion and – as the Supreme Court’s ruling Wednesday stressed – Islam’s holy Koran stresses tolerance and fighting injustice. The ruling said that evidence against Bibi was insufficient to convict her.

Bibi’s family says that for years, they lived side by side with Muslim neighbors in the village of Ikkawali, in the bread-basket province of Punjab.

“You know, the society we live in, we are often discriminated against as Christians but she was living a happy life,” said Nadeem.

‘ENEMY’

That all changed on June 14, 2009, when Bibi offered a cup of water to her Muslim fellow field workers. A woman refused, saying anything from the hand of a Christian was unclean, according to the Supreme Court ruling.

The incident led to harsh words and a police complaint several days later, then the court case that saw Bibi sentenced to death.

“Just sipping water from a mug made the whole village her enemy,” said Nadeem.

With Bibi soon to be free, her family is struggling to make plans. They would prefer to leave the country to be safe, but there are plans in place.

“We haven’t got any contact yet either from Pakistani authorities or anyone from outside,” Nadeem said.

Yet, despite all the family has been through, Bibi’s husband Masih said he would be sad to be forced to leave his homeland.

“We’re also part of Pakistan,” he said.

“This is our country. We love it.”

(Additional reporting by Mubasher Bukhari; Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Islamist group youth leader accused of shooting Pakistani minister – police

FILE PHOTO: Pakistan's Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal speaks to media outside the accountability court in Islamabad, Pakistan October 2, 2017. REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood/File Photo

By Asif Shahzad

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – The gunman accused of shooting and wounding Pakistan’s interior minister is a youth leader of a hardline religious group that sees its mission as enforcing death for blasphemers and ridding government of secular influence, police said in a report.

Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal was shot on Sunday as he was leaving a constituency meeting surrounded by supporters in Punjab province.

He is in hospital and out of danger but the attack has shaken the political establishment ahead of a general election expected in July.

The suspected gunman, arrested at the scene, is Abid Hussain, 21, a youth leader of the Islamist Tehreek-e-Labaik party, police said in an interrogation report seen by Reuters on Tuesday.

The party, known as Labaik, has made the emotive issue of blasphemy its rallying cry in a country where for years hardline Islamists have vied for power with civilian politicians and a coup-prone military.

Hussain told police he was inspired by the teachings of founders of the Labaik and joined a party blockade of the capital, Islamabad, in November aimed at forcing out a government minister they accused of blasphemy over a change to an oath-taking law.

According to police, Hussain said he had dreamt Ali Hajveri, an 11th century Muslim preacher revered in South Asia, “ordered me to kill Ahsan Iqbal”.

Labaik denied that Hussain was a member of the party.

“We have nothing to do with him,” spokesman Ejaz Ashrafi told Reuters.

But a founding member of Labaik, Pir Afzal Qadri, said Iqbal and his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party had invited trouble by committing blasphemy when they changed an election law in a way some said weakened an oath declaring Mohammad the last true prophet.

“They have done so much wrong,” Qadri said in a video message. “It is their fault, they themselves are responsible for this. These people are inviting attacks.”

‘SEND THEM TO HELL’

Iqbal’s shooting has stoked fears of a repeat of the pre-election Islamist violence that has blighted polls before, including the 2007 assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

It has also compounded unease about blasphemy.

Even accusations of blasphemy can lead to mob killings and those convicted of blasphemy face the death penalty, though no death sentences for it have been carried out.

Many clerics say even to suggest change to the blasphemy law is blasphemy.

In November, Labaik blocked a main road into the capital for several days over the small change to the election law. The government explained the change as a clerical error and reversed it. The minister responsible resigned.

Hussain joined the protests determined to “send any blasphemer to hell”, police said in their report.

Seven people were killed and 200 wounded when police tried to clear the blockade.

Qadri said Iqbal, as interior minister, was responsible for the attack on him as he had ordered the police action.

“It is regrettable that the whole world is making hue and cry just because he got one bullet, and not a single arrest has so far been made in the martyrdom of the seven people,” Qadri said.

Police said Hussain had cited the example of Mumtaz Qadri, a bodyguard of the governor of Punjab who gunned down the man he was meant to protect in 2011 over the governor’s call for reform of the blasphemy law.

Qadri, who was convicted of murder, sentenced to death and executed in 2016, has become a martyr for hardliners, and Labaik emerged out of a movement that lionized him.

Hussain bought a pistol several months ago and later got hold of bullets, police said in the report.

Two days before the shooting, he got a WhatsApp message from a resident of the town where Iqbal was shot, telling him the minister was due.

Hours before the meeting, Hussain washed, put on smart clothes and went early to wait, police said.

“When Ahsan Iqbal came down from the stage and was encircled with party workers, Abid stood up and fired.”

(Additional reporting by Syed Raza Hassan; Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Robert birsel)

Blasphemy laws on the books in one-third of nations: study

Protesters hold placards condemning the killing of university student Mashal Khan, after he was accused of blasphemy, during a protest in Islamabad, Pakistan April 18, 2017

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – Laws prohibiting blasphemy are “astonishingly widespread” worldwide, with many laying down disproportionate punishments ranging from prison sentences to lashings or the death penalty, the lead author of a report on blasphemy said.

Iran, Pakistan, and Yemen score worst, topping a list of 71 countries with laws criminalizing views deemed blasphemous, found in all regions, according to a comprehensive report issued this month by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

The bipartisan U.S. federal commission called for repeal of blasphemy statutes, saying they invited abuse and failed to protect freedoms of religion and expression.

“We found key patterns. All deviate from freedom of speech principles in some way, all have a vague formulation, with different interpretations,” Joelle Fiss, the Swiss-based lead author of the report told Reuters.

The ranking is based on how a state’s ban on blasphemy or criminalizing of it contravenes international law principles.

Ireland and Spain had the “best scores”, as their laws order a fine, according to the report which said many European states have blasphemy laws that are rarely invoked.

Some 86 percent of states with blasphemy laws prescribe imprisonment for convicted offenders, it said.

Proportionality of punishment was a key criteria for the researchers.

“That is why Iran and Pakistan are the two highest countries because they explicitly have the death penalty in their law,” Fiss said, referring to their laws which enforce the death penalty for insulting the Prophet Mohammad.

Blasphemy laws can be misused by authorities to repress minorities, the report said, citing Pakistan and Egypt, and can serve as a pretext for religious extremists to foment hate.

Recent high-profile blasphemy cases include Jakarta’s former Christian governor being sentenced to two years in jail in May for insulting Islam, a ruling which activists and U.N. experts condemned as unfair and politicized. Critics fear the ruling will embolden hardline Islamist forces to challenge secularism in Indonesia.

A Pakistani court sentenced a man to death last month who allegedly committed blasphemy on Facebook, the first time the penalty was given for that crime on social media in Muslim-majority Pakistan.

“Each of the top five countries with the highest scoring laws has an official state religion,” the report said, referring to Iran, Pakistan, Yemen, Somali and Qatar. All have Islam as their state religion.

Saudi Arabia, where flogging and amputations have been reported for alleged blasphemy, is not among the top “highest-risk countries”, but only 12th, as punishment is not defined in the blasphemy law itself.

“They don’t have a written penal law, but rely on judges’ interpretation of the Sharia. The score was disproportionately low,” Fiss said. “If a law is very vague, it means prosecutors and judges have a lot of discretion to interpret.”

 

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Toby Chopra)

 

A Bible and a cell: a new life for Jakarta’s high-flying Christian governor

Supporters of former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama hold a small rally outside the gate of the Mobile Police Brigade or Brimob headquarters where he is being detained, in Depok, south of Jakarta, Indonesia May 10, 2017 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Antara Foto/Yulius Satria Wijaya/ via REUTERS

By Ed Davies

JAKARTA (Reuters) – Jakarta’s once hugely popular governor is being held in a simple room at a high-security detention center, his only comforts a Bible and visitors twice a week. It’s a grim new life following his conviction for insulting Islam in Muslim-majority Indonesia.

Basuki Tjahaja Purnama was hurriedly transferred to the high-security police facility in a suburb of the city early on Wednesday after his supporters surrounded the Jakarta jail he was initially sent to.

His sister said the family also feared his life was in danger from furious Islamists.

“The religious people have been saying in the mosques that his blood is haram (forbidden) and that killing him is good,” Fifi Lety Indra, the sister and head of his legal team, told Reuters. “This is necessary protection and it gives us peace and comfort that he’s there.”

His two-year imprisonment on Tuesday was much harsher than the suspended sentence the prosecution had sought for the ethnic-Chinese Christian governor, prompting warnings that Islam is creeping into politics and the judiciary of the secular nation.

The blasphemy conviction is a stunning downfall for the close ally of President Joko Widodo. Brash and unafraid to take on the moneyed elite, Purnama – popularly known by his Chinese nickname ‘Ahok’ – was widely admired for his no-nonsense drive to modernize a chaotic city long plagued by traffic and flooding.

His fortunes turned last September, when he was seeking re-election. He said his political rivals were deceiving people by using a verse from the Koran to say Muslims should not be led by a non-Muslim. Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim-majority country.

Purnama denied the blasphemy allegation but apologized for the comments. But hardline groups drew hundreds of thousands of protesters onto the streets of Jakarta, calling for him to be sacked and jailed for insulting Islam’s holy book.

Popular sentiment turned against him after those demonstrations and he lost his bid for another term as governor in elections this year. His trial, which began late last year, took religious tensions in Indonesia to their highest in years.

BLOCKING TRAFFIC

Purnama was initially taken to Cipinang Penitentiary in East Jakarta, a Dutch colonial-era high-security prison notorious for its overcrowding and home to convicted drug offenders and Islamist militants.

He was moved to a police compound in Depok on the outskirts of Jakarta because his supporters were blocking traffic around the Cipinang prison. Some even attempted to topple a barbed-wire fence there.

His sister Indra brought their mother to meet him in Depok on her birthday.

“We met him in prison with our Muslim siblings, we hugged, we cried. The whole thing happened so fast,” Indra said.

Though Purnama was born to non-Muslim parents and is a Christian, he was adopted by a Muslim family on the tiny island of Belitung, off Sumatra.

He does not have a phone or a television in the police facility, and Indra said the only book he took with him was a Bible. “He loves reading his Bible. He has it with him and he can pray whenever he wants,” she said.

Purnama was allowed to bring his own clothes and toiletries, she said. “I can say he’s being treated very well and humanely. We are very grateful for that.”

SENTENCE

Indra said he is in a “temporary holding room” but is likely to be moved to a private cell soon. He will be allowed visitors twice a week for two hours each time, she said.

Purnama’s legal team is preparing an appeal to challenge his prison sentence.

His lawyers have also submitted a request to the Jakarta High Court to have his sentence commuted to a ban on him traveling outside Jakarta.

Purnama was due to stay in office until October, when the winner of April’s run-off election, Anies Baswedan, will take over.

Indra paid tribute to President Widodo, under whom Purnama had served as deputy governor of Jakarta before taking charge of the city when Widodo won the presidency in 2014.

“We understand how difficult the situation is for him but he’s a wise man,” she said. “He and my brother have a beautiful bond of friendship still.”

(Additional reporting by Fergus Jensen; Editing by John Chalmers and Bill Tarrant)

Jakarta’s Christian governor jailed for blasphemy against Islam

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

By Fergus Jensen and Fransiska Nangoy

JAKARTA (Reuters) – Jakarta’s Christian governor was sentenced to two years in jail for blasphemy against Islam on Tuesday, a harsher than expected ruling that is being seen as a blow to religious tolerance in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation.

The guilty verdict comes amid concern about the growing influence of Islamist groups, who organized mass demonstrations during a tumultuous election campaign that ended with Basuki Tjahaja Purnama losing his bid for another term as governor.

President Joko Widodo was an ally of Purnama, an ethnic-Chinese Christian who is popularly known as “Ahok”, and the verdict will be a setback for a government that has sought to quell radical groups and soothe investors’ concerns that the country’s secular values were at risk.

As thousands of supporters and opponents waited outside, the head judge of the Jakarta court, Dwiarso Budi Santiarto, said Purnama was “found to have legitimately and convincingly conducted a criminal act of blasphemy, and because of that we have imposed two years of imprisonment”.

Andreas Harsono of Human Rights Watch described the verdict as “a huge setback” for Indonesia’s record of tolerance and for minorities.

“If someone like Ahok, the governor of the capital, backed by the country’s largest political party, ally of the president, can be jailed on groundless accusations, what will others do?,” Harsono said.

Supporters of Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, also known as Ahok, stage a protest outside Cipinang Prison, where he was taken following his conviction of blasphemy, in Jakarta, Indonesia May 9, 2017. REUTERS/Darren Whiteside

Supporters of Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, also known as Ahok, stage a protest outside Cipinang Prison, where he was taken following his conviction of blasphemy, in Jakarta, Indonesia May 9, 2017. REUTERS/Darren Whiteside

WEEPING SUPPORTERS

Purnama told the court he would appeal the ruling. The governor was taken to an East Jakarta prison after the verdict and his lawyer Tommy Sihotang said he would remain there despite his appeal process unless a higher court suspended it.

Shocked and angry supporters, some weeping openly, gathered outside the prison, vowing not to leave the area until he was released, while others vented their shock on social media.

Some lay down outside the jail blocking traffic, chanting “destroy FPI”, referring to the Islamic Defenders Front, a hardline group behind many of the protests against Purnama.

“They sentenced him because they were pressured by the masses. That is unfair,” Purnama supporter Andreas Budi said earlier outside the court.

Home affairs minister Tjahjo Kumolo said Purnama’s deputy would take over in the interim.

Thousands of police were deployed in the capital in case clashes broke out, but there was no immediate sign of any violence after the court’s verdict.

Prosecutors had called for a suspended one-year jail sentence on charges of hate speech. The maximum sentence is four years in prison for hate speech and five years for blasphemy.

Hardline Islamist groups had called for the maximum penalty possible over comments by Purnama that they said were insulting to the Islamic holy book, the Koran.

While on a work trip last year, Purnama said political rivals were deceiving people by using a verse in the Koran to say Muslims should not be led by a non-Muslim.

An incorrectly subtitled video of his comments later went viral, helping spark huge demonstrations that ultimately resulted in him being bought to trial.

Purnama denied wrongdoing, though he apologized for the comments made to residents in an outlying Jakarta district.

Supporters of Jakarta's Christian governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly known as Ahok, cry after he was sentenced following the guilty verdict in his blasphemy trial in Jakarta on May 9, 2017. REUTERS/Bay Ismoyo/Pool

Supporters of Jakarta’s Christian governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly known as Ahok, cry after he was sentenced following the guilty verdict in his blasphemy trial in Jakarta on May 9, 2017. REUTERS/Bay Ismoyo/Pool

RADICAL ISLAMIST GROUPS

Purnama lost his bid for re-election to a Muslim rival, Anies Baswedan, in an April run-off – after the most divisive and religiously charged election in recent years. He is due to hand over to Baswedan in October.

If Purnama’s appeals failed, he would be prevented from holding public office under Indonesian law because the offence carried a maximum penalty of five years, said Simon Butt of the Centre for Asian and Pacific Law at the University of Sydney.

Analysts say the radical Islamist groups that organized mass protests against Purnama had a decisive impact on the outcome of the gubernatorial election.

Indonesian hardline Muslims react after hearing a verdict on Jakarta's first non-Muslim and ethnic-Chinese Christian governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama's blasphemy trial at outside court in Jakarta, Indonesia May 9, 2017. REUTERS/Beawiharta

Indonesian hardline Muslims react after hearing a verdict on Jakarta’s first non-Muslim and ethnic-Chinese Christian governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama’s blasphemy trial at outside court in Jakarta, Indonesia May 9, 2017. REUTERS/Beawiharta

Rights group fear Islamist hardliners are in the ascendant in a country where most Muslims practise a moderate form of Islam and which is home to sizeable communities of Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, and people who adhere to traditional beliefs.

The government has been criticized for not doing enough to protect religious minorities but Widodo had urged restraint over the trial and called for all sides to respect the legal process.

His government said on Monday it would take legal steps to disband Hizb ut-Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), a group that seeks to establish an Islamic caliphate, because its activities were creating social tensions and threatening security.

(Additional reporting by Gayatri Suroyo, Darren Whiteside, Tom Allard and Agustinus Beo Da Costa; Writing by John Chalmers; Editing by Ed Davies and Simon Cameron-Moore)