Indonesian police drop porn charge against hard-line cleric

As police close case, president's office denies political motivation behind decision
Indonesian police drop porn charge against hard-line cleric

Muhammad Rizieq Shihab, founder of the hard-line Islamic Defenders Front, delivers a speech at a protest in Jakarta in October 2016. (Photo by Ryan Dagur/ucanews.com)

Indonesian police have dropped pornography charges against hard-line cleric Muhammad Rizieq Shihab, which one political analyst believes is a maneuver by President Joko Widodo to placate hard-line Islamic groups ahead of next year's presidential election.

After Shihab published a video thanking police for dropping the case, police spokesman Muhammad Iqbal admitted as much on June 17.

Shihab — the founder of the hard-line Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) — was charged with pornography in May of last year. A guilty conviction could have resulted in a five-year prison sentence.

The charges were based on an accusation that he shared pornographic material with female activist Firza Husein via WhatsApp. The online chats, which included some nude photos, were uploaded to the website baladacintarizieq.com.

After being summoned by police over the matter, Shihab instead left Indonesia for Saudi Arabia.

Iqbal said police terminated the investigation because they had not yet found the uploader of the pornographic content.

Bawono Kamoro, a political analyst, said he believed the dropping of the charges was a political move by President Widodo to accommodate the cleric and his allies.

"Widodo is trying to anticipate the movement of Muslim hardliners that has been transformed into a sociopolitical group during Jakarta governor elections last year," Kamoro said. "Widodo does not want any stumbling blocks ahead of the 2019 presidential election."

Kamoro said Widodo has learned from what happened to his ally Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama who faced a series of rallies organized by Shihab and the FPI demanding he be jailed for blasphemy. In May of last year, Ahok was sentenced to two years' imprisonment based on an incident in which he allegedly told voters not to rely on the Quran.

Even though in exile in Saudi Arabia, Shihab is still recognized as having great political sway. On June 2, Jokowi's old rival Prabowo Subianto visited him to discuss the formation of a coalition to challenge Widodo in next year's presidential election.

Meanwhile, the palace has denied any suggestions that Widodo has anything to do with dropping the case, saying that the suspension was related to the legal process.

"There is no political motivation," said Ali Mochtar Ngabalin, an official at the presidential palace.

"There is no special treatment for [Rizieq Shihab's] case," he added, citing that the police also dropped the case involving Sukmawati Soekarnoputri, daughter of former president Soekarno.

Soekarnoputri had faced legal charges for allegedly insulting Islam through a poem that undermines the Islamic niqab and the adzan or Islamic call to prayer.

In recent years, Shihab was reported to police over at least 11 cases, including a case of blasphemy against Christianity. However, he was only formally named a suspect in two cases, the pornography case and a Pancasila insult case. The latter was dropped by West Java Police last month, citing lack of criminal intent.

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