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Islam in Asia

Indonesian firebrand cleric Habib Rizieq faces arrest in Jakarta

Fatal clash between backers and police follows push for questioning over COVID

The leader of the hardline Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), Habib Rizieq, speaks to the media upon his arrival at Jakarta Police headquarters on Feb. 1, 2017.   © Reuters

JAKARTA -- Jakarta police on Friday said they will arrest firebrand Islamist cleric Muhammad Rizieq Shihab, better known in Indonesia as Habib Rizieq, after a deadly clash between police and his supporters this week and large gatherings at his sermons last month.

Shihab ignored two police summonses to investigate his role in alleged violations of Jakarta's health protocols against COVID-19, following the cleric's return from over three years of self-exile in Saudi Arabia. Tens of thousands of supporters flocked to Soekarno-Hatta Airport outside Jakarta when he arrived, and his near-daily sermons in the week after drew similarly large crowds.

Police named Shihab a suspect on Thursday.

"There is no single group or mass organization that may place themselves above the nation, especially those who have committed crimes -- hate speeches, instigation and spreading lies -- repeatedly, for years," Jakarta Police Chief Inspector General Fadil Imran said Friday. "Not only that those are crimes, but they can also tear up our diversity. I have to take firm law enforcement against such [crimes]."

Six of Shihab's supporters were fatally shot by police in the clash on a highway outside Jakarta early Monday. Police claimed the incident was self-defense, in response to the officers being attacked.

Police were following vehicles carrying members of Shihab's hard-line group -- the Islamic Defenders Front, or FPI -- suspecting that they were gathering people to guard the cleric so that officers could not approach and arrest him for interrogation.

FPI has protested the "extrajudicial killings," alleging that police lied with the claim that the group's members were carrying guns. The group also referred to its dead members as guards of Shihab and as "martyrs."

"We're asking all layers of the society for your prayers and support so that truth and justice will prevail in this beloved land," the FPI said.

The group also has protested Shihab's status as a suspect, saying police should have waited until he and his family were recovering and able to comply with the summonses. Rumors abound that Shihab and some of his family members have contracted the coronavirus. He was reportedly hospitalized briefly following the gatherings.

A Health Ministry official said last month that 80 attendees of Shihab's gatherings had tested positive for coronavirus. Jakarta Gov. Anies Baswedan and his deputy, Ahmad Riza Patria, also have tested positive -- they met Shihab shortly upon his arrival back in Jakarta.

FPI said earlier that the group tried to implement health protocols during the gatherings, but could not prevent the unexpected large crowds.

Shihab in his fiery sermons slammed the administration of President Joko Widodo for what he claimed was criminalization of ulema, or Muslim scholars. The cleric also called for "moral revolution" and previously declared plans for a national tour to garner support for the campaign before later canceling it, citing coronavirus concerns.

Some members of the public fear the plan to arrest Shihab will spark riots, with the potential for a larger clash between his supporters and security officers.

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