By Johan Purnomo and Fergus Jensen
President Joko Widodo lashed out at politicians for stoking a huge protest by Muslims that briefly turned violent on Friday night as a hardcore group pressed for the resignation of Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, a Christian they say insulted the Koran.
At a news conference held in the early hours of Saturday, Widodo called for calm and took a swipe at politicians – whom he didn’t name – for whipping up die-hard demonstrators after most had already gone home.
” … we deplore the incident after the Isha prayers, when [demonstrators] should have already disbanded but became violent. And, we see this was steered by political actors who were exploiting the situation,” Widodo said.
Police fired tear gas and water cannon to subdue a restive crowd that police said swelled to about 150,000 after Friday prayers as they congregated around the presidential palace.
Some protesters threw rocks at the police, two vehicles were torched and a fire broke out near the city’s National Monument, but by the evening the demonstration was fizzling out.
However, in a northern neighborhood of the city there was a late-night clash between police and a few dozen protesters, and social media reports showed a convenience store being looted.
And hundreds camped out until around 4 a.m. beside the parliament building to demand Ahok be charged for blasphemy.
A police spokesman said one person died and 12 were hurt. Local media said about 23 people were arrested, most of them in the north, where overnight police guarded shopping and residential areas that are home to predominantly non-Muslims.
About a dozen Muslim groups have accused Ahok of insulting Islam after he jokingly said his opponents had used a verse from the Koran to deceive voters. The verse implies that Muslims should not choose non-Muslims as leaders.
Chanting “God is greatest”, many in Friday’s protest waved placards calling for Ahok, to be jailed for blasphemy. A white banner hung at an overpass was painted with red letters that read “Hang Ahok here”.
Police are investigating the case against Ahok, who has apologized for his remarks, insisting he was not criticizing the Koranic verse but those who used it to attack him.
Ahok has a reputation as a no-nonsense reformer with little patience for the corruption widely blamed for the chaos and dilapidated infrastructure of an overcrowded city.
He remains popular despite efforts by Muslim groups to vilify him and is seen as the frontrunner in the election, though many voters are angry with him for evicting large numbers from slums to modernize Jakarta.
Widodo has vowed not to interfere in any legal proceedings against Ahok, according to media reports. But he said at his news conference that any legal process involving Ahok would be executed “swiftly, firmly and transparently”.
Many critics say Widodo’s government failed to quell tensions in the run-up to Friday’s protest.
(Reporting by Fergus Jensen and Johan Purnomo; Additional reporting by Gayatri Suroyo, Fransiska Nangoy, Eveline Danubrata, Angie Teo and Wilda Asmarini; Writing by Eveline Danubrata and John Chalmers; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)