Clashes as Indonesia jails hardline cleric over virus lies

Indonesian police fired tear gas and water cannon at supporters of a hardline Muslim cleric jailed Thursday for spreading false information about Covid-19 after he held rallies that drew thousands.

Rizieq Shihab, 55, was handed a four-year jail term for claiming in a viral video that he was healthy, despite knowing that test results showed he may have been infected with the virus.

Thousands rallied outside the courthouse in Jakarta in support of the cleric, whose influential Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) was banned earlier this year.

Police said they had arrested more than 150 demonstrators ahead of the sentencing.

Thursday’s ruling comes after the same court in May sentenced Shihab to eight months’ jail for holding sermons and other gatherings that drew tens of thousands of followers, breaking virus restrictions in one of Asia’s worst-hit nations.

Shihab had urged supporters to attend sermons, a celebration of the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday, and his daughter’s wedding. All drew huge crowds in the Muslim-majority country, with many supporters not wearing masks or social distancing.

The cleric was later treated in hospital over suspicions he was infected with Covid-19.

But that was kept secret by a hospital director who was also sentenced Thursday to a year in jail over the affair.

The charismatic Islamic leader returned to Indonesia last year after fleeing to Saudi Arabia in 2017 as police named him a suspect in a pornography case. Those charges have since been dropped.

He was arrested on the virus-linked charges in December, after Jakarta police shot dead six FPI followers in a highway gun battle that authorities described as an act of self-defence — a claim disputed by the group.

Shihab’s FPI was notorious in Indonesia for targeting nightclubs and other establishments it deemed immoral, and has also attacked minority Muslim sects it considered deviant.

The cleric was among the main figures behind mass rallies in 2016 against the then governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, over allegations that he insulted the Koran.

Basuki, who is Christian, was sentenced to two years in prison for blasphemy.

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