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Jakarka governor issues emotional defense against blasphemy charges

Basuki Tjahaja Purnama told a courtroom Tuesday he chose his words poorly but sought to make a statement about his rival politicians, not insult the Muslim religion.

By Stephen Feller
Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known by the nickname Ahok, at center, sits in the defendant's chair in a courtroom shortly before his blasphemy trial hearing at North Jakarta District Court in Jakarta, Indonesia, on December 13, 2016. Ahok is on trial for blasphemy due to comments he made in reference to a Koranic verse while campaigning in September 2016. Photo by Tatan Syuflana/Pool/European Pressphoto Agency
Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known by the nickname Ahok, at center, sits in the defendant's chair in a courtroom shortly before his blasphemy trial hearing at North Jakarta District Court in Jakarta, Indonesia, on December 13, 2016. Ahok is on trial for blasphemy due to comments he made in reference to a Koranic verse while campaigning in September 2016. Photo by Tatan Syuflana/Pool/European Pressphoto Agency

JAKARTA, Dec. 13 (UPI) -- With tears in his eyes, the governor of Jakarta told a courtroom Tuesday he did not mean to insult Islam in a speech several weeks ago, but instead clarify the use of a phrase from the Koran he felt was being misstated to mislead voters.

Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the Christian governor of Indonesia's largest city, defended himself on the first day of his trial for blasphemy, saying those running against him were attempting to use a line from the Koran about not voting for non-Muslims to avoid a "healthy" competition in the election.

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"I am very sad that I have been accused of insulting Muslims. It is the same to me as insulting my godparents, my family," Purnama, known by his nickname, Ahok, told the court as protesters outside the courthouse nearly drowned him out. "My godparents love for me had a deep impact."

Ahok, who is ethnically Chinese and Christian and the adoptive son of a religious Muslim family, was investigated and charged by the government after a September 26 speech calling out his opponents for the use of verse 51 of the fifth Surat, referred to as the al-Maida.

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The al-Maida commands Muslims to never vote for a non-Muslim as leader. Ahok said his political opponents use of it was an incorrect interpretation because it was written at a time when there were concerns Muslims who opposed the Prophet Muhammad would join with non-Muslims to have him killed.

"So clearly it wasn't intended to refer to choosing a government leader," he said. "In Indonesia, a government leader is not a religious leader," Ahok said. "[My comments] were aimed at elite politicians who incorrectly used the al-Maida verse because they refused to compete in a healthy way during a local election."

Ahok told the court his quip during the speech -- "That's your right, so if you can't choose me because you are afraid you will go to hell, that's OK," he said -- was meant as a lighthearted response to those attempting to use religion against him among the 90 percent Muslim populace in Indonesia.

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"In this case, perhaps my language might have given the wrong perception or interpretation from what I had intended or meant," Ahok said in court.

Though he asked the court to dismiss the charges so he can "go back to serving the citizens of Jakarta and developing the city," many in the city, including the thousands who have continued to protest him, including during the trial's first day, don't agree. And among the 100 blasphemy convictions in Indonesia in the last decade, just one did not result in a conviction.

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Ahok is next due in court on Dec. 20. If found guilty, the mayor could be sentenced to up to five years in jail.

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