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Politics

Firebrand Indonesian cleric gets 4 years for COVID test lies

Hundreds protest ruling against Habib Rizieq, adding to Jakarta virus surge fears

People gather during a protest in Jakarta on Thursday supporting Rizieq Shihab, an Indonesian Islamic cleric who was sentenced for breaching coronavirus curbs after his return last year from self-imposed exile.   © Reuters

JAKARTA -- A firebrand Indonesian cleric was sentenced to four years in prison on Thursday for lying about his COVID-19 test result.

Hundreds of supporters of Muhammad Rizieq Shihab protested outside the East Jakarta District Court, where judges ruled that he was guilty of violating a clause in Indonesia's 1946 criminal law that stipulates spreading lies purposefully to create public chaos.

In his public statements after leaving a hospital in Bogor, West Java, in late November, the cleric denied rumors he had contracted coronavirus, saying he was in good health and only needed a rest. The result of a test showed him to be positive. Subordinates in the Islamist hardline group he led, the disbanded Islamic Defenders Front, issued similar statements.

"When speaking about his health condition, the defendant should have been aware of unwanted effects -- especially because he's a religious figure who has... big influence among the public," one of the judges said while reading out the verdict, which was broadcast live on YouTube. "The panel of judges are convinced that he did [the lie] on purpose. Therefore the element of intention to create chaos has been met."

The sentence was lighter than prosecutors' demand for six years. The cleric, better known as Habib Rizieq, told the court he rejected and would appeal the verdict. His son-in-law and the president director of Ummi Hospital in Bogor are also standing trials for allegedly conspiring with Rizieq to lie.

Outside the court, hundreds marched in support of the cleric and a clash briefly erupted between police and protesters as they attempted to approach the heavily-guarded court compound. Protesters cried out "injustice" against Rizieq's imprisonment.

A demonstrator holds a picture of Rizieq Shihab during a protest supporting him in Jakarta on Thursday.   © Reuters

The crowd adds to concerns over Indonesia's second wave of coronavirus cases. This week, the country reported record daily highs in infections since onset of the pandemic.

Hospitals in Jakarta and some major cities in West and Central Java are quickly running out of beds for COVID-19 patients, and there have been reports of people dying before they could be admitted to a hospital.

The four-year sentence adds to the eight months Shihab received last month for violating Indonesia's health quarantine law. Judges said then that while the cleric failed to comply with self-quarantine measures upon his arrival back in Jakarta, he was not guilty of purposefully inciting the large crowds who welcomed him.

Tens of thousands greeted the cleric as he arrived at Soekarno-Hatta Airport in the outskirts of Jakarta on Nov. 10 last year, and the following week thousands more attended his almost daily sermons, which he used to criticize the government of Joko Widodo. Officials said the crowds contributed to spikes in coronavirus cases in Jakarta in December and January.

Shihab returned to Indonesia following more than three years of self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia after police named him as a suspect in what some saw as politicized cases against him. The firebrand cleric was seen playing instrumental roles in mobilizing massive Muslim rallies in late 2016 against then Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a close aide to Widodo, for alleged insult of the Quran.

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