Islamic Defenders Front chief, Muhammad Rizieq Shihab, delivers a speech to followers in this file photo. Indonesian police have charged him with violating health quarantine laws by organizing large gatherings. (Photo: Konradus Epa/UCA News)
Indonesian police have charged the leader of a notorious hardline Islamic group with violating Covid-19 protocols after holding large gatherings despite warnings.
Muhammad Rizieq Shihab, leader of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), and five of his followers were charged under the health quarantine law and could face six years in prison, police said.
The firebrand cleric, whose group is known for violence and intimidating religious minorities, recently returned from self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia after fleeing pornography charges that were later dropped.
He is accused of being responsible for several recent large gatherings, including an event to mark the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday and his daughter’s wedding, which attracted thousands of his supporters.
Many people who attended these events later tested positive for Covid-19.
Jakarta police have called Shihab in for questioning twice about the gatherings which he ignored. His followers have even blocked police officers from trying to enter his residence.
Police said they decided to go ahead and charge Shihab on Dec 8, a day after they shot dead six FPI members who were helping him avoid arrest.
"We will arrest the suspects soon,” Jakarta Police Chief, Fadil Imran said on Dec 10.
Aziz Yanuar, FPI’s lawyer, called the move a “travesty and injustice.”
Petrus Selestinus, a Catholic lawyer and head of a lawyers' group set up to defend secularism in Indonesia, said he feared the charges will come to nothing.
He cited 14 charges brought against the cleric in 2017 that included insulting Indonesia’s secular ideology, Pancasila, and the pornography charge, all of which were dropped by the police.
“The public hopes this time the police will be more professional and ensure this case [against Shihab] is not dropped,” he told UCA News.
He also expressed hope that Jakarta police could lay their hands on Shihab before he could escape abroad again.