JAKARTA -- Firebrand Indonesian cleric Muhammad Rizieq Shihab, better known as Habib Rizieq, was sentenced to eight months in prison on Thursday for violating COVID-19 health protocols for his crowded sermons following his return from Saudi Arabia.
Judges at the East Jakarta District Court also ordered Shihab to pay 20 million rupiah ($1.400) in fines, or spend an extra five months behind bars. The ruling is lighter than two years and 10 months in prison sought by prosecutors for multiple charges related to protocol violations, as they blamed him for contributing to spikes in Jakarta's coronavirus cases in December.
Judges said while Shihab failed to comply with self-quarantine measures upon his return to the country, he was not guilty of purposefully inciting large crowds in Jakarta and the neighboring city of Bogor. Five other leading members of the vigilante Islamist group he leads, the Islamic Defenders Front, or FPI, received the same eight-month sentence.
"The defendants... were validly and convincingly proved to have committed a crime by violating health quarantine together," one of the judges said while reading out the verdict, broadcast live on YouTube.
Both Shihab and prosecutors said they have not decided whether to appeal the ruling. Time already served in custody means that Rizieq and the other convicts are expected to be released in the next few months.
Security outside the court was tight, with Jakarta police reportedly dispatching 3,000 personnel to secure the area. They detained around 20 of Shihab's followers the previous night.
Tens of thousands of people greeted Shihab as he arrived at Soekarno-Hatta Airport outside Jakarta in November last year, and thousands more attended his almost daily sermons the following week. The fiery preachings were often interlaced with harsh criticisms against President Joko Widodo's government, including for what he alleged as criminalization of ulemas (bodies of Muslim scholars) .
Shihab's return followed more than three years of self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia, after police named him as a suspect over what some saw as politicized cases against him -- including alleged sexting.
Shihab and the FPI were seen instrumental in mobilizing massive Muslim rallies against Basuki Tjahaja "Ahok" Purnama, then Chinese Christian governor of Jakarta, in late 2016 -- which led to the latter's political downfall and imprisonment over a blasphemy charge. Ahok is a close aide to Widodo. Prior to the rallies, FPI had only small following and was known more for its raids against nightclubs and some attacks against minorities.
The cleric is also a leading figure in the so-called 212 movement, whose members include some other conservative Muslim groups that mobilized support for Prabowo Subianto, Widodo's rival in the 2019 presidential election.
Shihab was arrested in mid December, less than a week after six FPI members were killed in a clash with police when they were looking for his whereabouts, after the cleric defied police's summonses. Rights groups have criticized the extrajudicial killings and police's intransparency over the incident.
The government also has since banned the FPI and its activities, and police more recently have linked the group with a local pro-Islamic State terrorist organization, Jamaah Ansharud Daulah, which is responsible for a suicide bomb attack outside a church in Makassar, the capital city of South Sulawesi Province, in late March.
Some members of the Makassar branch of the FPI were said to have taken a pledge of allegiance to Islamic State leader al-Baghdadi in 2015. And shortly after the Makassar bombing, police arrested several FPI supporters in Jakarta and a nearby city as they were suspected of preparing explosives to free Rizieq or attack Chinese interests in Indonesia.
"There was no connection between the cathedral bombing and the Jakarta arrests, but the police made it seem as though there were," The Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, a Jakarta-based security think tank, wrote in a report released on Tuesday.
It raised concerns over a threat to civil liberties in what is seen as the Widodo government's growing push for "repressive pluralism" or "imposed moderation" to counter expanding influence of hard-line Muslim groups in Indonesia, including the FPI, especially following the 2016 anti-Ahok rallies.
"The danger now is that some of FPI's more militant members could be pushed by a sense of unfairness and persecution to more lethal violence, thus making the government claim that it is linked to terrorism a self-fulfilling prophecy," IPAC said.