JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — A polarizing Christian politician whose campaign comments ignited protests that were the largest in Muslim-majority Indonesia in years was freed Thursday after serving nearly two years in prison for blasphemy.
Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama, the former governor of Jakarta, left a paramilitary police prison outside the capital early Thursday with members of his family, said his spokesman Sakti Budiono, avoiding waiting supporters and media.
In 2016, Purnama made campaign-trail comments that hardliners seized on as blasphemy, triggering protests that brought hundreds of thousands of white-robed Muslims to the center of Jakarta.
He was defeated in an election by a rival aligned with the protesters and sentenced to prison in May 2017 for blaspheming the Quran. Rights groups said the sentence highlighted why the easily abused blasphemy law should be repealed.
Days before being freed, Purnama posted online that he didn't want supporters to make a fuss about his release and apologized to Jakarta civil servants including "even my haters" that he'd offended by being rude and arrogant.
The movement against Purnama, an ally of President Joko Widodo, rattled the government and highlighted the mingling of religion with politics in Indonesia, the world's third-largest democracy.
Widodo subsequently chose a conservative cleric as his running mate for April's presidential election, hoping to deflect attacks that he is insufficiently Islamic.
Purnama, part of the tiny ethnic Chinese minority in Indonesia, was popular with Jakarta's middle class for efforts to stamp out corruption and make the teeming capital more livable.
But others were alienated by his brash outspokenness and the demolition of slums that were home to Jakarta's poorest residents.
"If I was re-elected as the Jakarta governor in the last election, I'll just be a man who controls City Hall," Purnama said in a handwritten letter posted on Instagram. "But in here, I'm learning how to control myself, for the rest of my life."
In an unlikely twist, the 2016 protests also provided opportunists with the impetus for an alleged plot to topple Widodo, the first Indonesian president not from the country's military and political elite.
Police arrested numerous high-profile Indonesians, including a daughter of Indonesia's founding president, accusing them of plotting to hijack the protests to cause chaos. Their apparent aim was to provide a pretext for military intervention that would unseat Widodo.
They were later released and have not faced trial.