Return of fugitive Indonesian cleric backed by hardliners

Supporters say the Muslim hardliner accused of fomenting religious strife should be allowed to return from Saudi Arabia
Return of fugitive Indonesian cleric backed by hardliners

Muhammad Rizieq Shihab, head of Islamic Defender Front, has been hiding in Saudi Arabia since July last year. (Photo by Konradus Epa/ucanews.com)

Members of Indonesia's hard-line Islamic Defenders' Front have called for their fugitive leader, Muhammad Rizieq Shihab, to be allowed to freely return to his homeland without facing arrest.

Shihab is an Hadhrami Arab Indonesian Sunni Muslim, opposed to Shia Muslims and various minority Islamic sects, who has also adopted anti-Christian stances.

The 53 year old fled to Saudi Arabia in July last year, purportedly to avoid blasphemy, sex and pornography charges.

As well as a police investigation, complaints were lodged by Christian and other groups in Indonesia.  

On Sept. 29, about 10,000 of Shihab's followers staged a rally in Jakarta to support him.

They demanded that the Saudi government either allow him to return to Indonesia or extend his visa, which expired several months ago.

"We want him to come home," Novel Bamukmin, an official of the Islamic Defenders' Front told ucanews.com. "He is an Indonesian citizen whose rights must be protected."

Shihab and his family have tickets to fly to to Malaysia, but could not go there because Saudi officials had banned him from leaving the country, Bamukmin said.

Shihab left Indonesia after he was accused of having illicit sexual relations with a woman.

A charge relating to pornography was dropped in June this year when police acknowledged they lacked evidence on which to prosecute him.

In a recorded message from Saudi Arabia played during the recent Jakarta protest, Shihab said he did not know why he was being barred from leaving Saudi Arabia, but that he respected the decision.

None-the-less, the Muslim hardliner said he still hoped that the travel ban would soon be lifted.

Agus Sulistiyo, 34, a moderate Muslim in Jakarta, said he believed that Shihab should not return to Indonesia's "boiling" political atmosphere amid presidential and legislative election campaigning. 

"His return would just cause conflicts," Sulistiyo said.

He added that Shihab was well known for provoking tensions through expressions of religious hatred and opposition to social pluralism.    

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Petrus Selestinus, a Catholic lawyer, said that even Shihab's supporters should accept that his current situation arose from application of the laws of Saudi Arabia and not from anything being done in Indonesia.

The Indonesian government would not intervene to seek a lifting of the Saudi travel ban because the matter was outside its jurisdiction, Selestinus told ucanews.com.

Indonesia's ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Agus Maftuh Abegebriel, said he had not received any official instructions from his government in relation to Shihab.

But he added that as Shihab's Saudi visa had expired, he would first have to leave the country before re-entering in any bid to get a new one.

Shihab's legal adviser, Sugito Atmo Prawiro, told the media that Shihab is seen in Saudi Arabia as a man forced to become a political fugitive for defending Islam.

It is the duty of Saudi Arabia to protect him, Prawiro said.

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