JAKARTA: A firebrand Indonesian cleric turned himself in to authorities on Saturday (Dec 12) after he was accused of inciting people to breach pandemic restrictions by holding events with large crowds.
Rizieq Shihab, leader of the Islamic Defenders Front, arrived at Jakarta police headquarters a day after police warned they would arrest him after he ignored several summonses.
Wearing a white robe, turban and face mask, Shihab told reporters that he never ran away or hid from police.
“With God's permission, I can come to the Jakarta police for an investigation according to the laws and regulations,” he said ahead of questioning.
Jakarta police spokesman Yusri Yunus told a news conference on Friday that Shihab is accused of ignoring measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 by holding an event to commemorate Prophet Muhammad’s birthday and the wedding of his daughter last month that pulled in thousands of his supporters.
He said Shihab could face up to six years in prison if found guilty of inciting people to violate health regulations amid an outbreak, and of obstructing law enforcement.
Shihab’s presence at several events in Jakarta and West Java attracted large crowds with attendees visibly ignoring physical distancing and many failing to wear masks.
Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan and West Java Governor Ridwan Kamil have been questioned as witnesses in the case.
READ: Two Indonesian police chiefs reassigned after massive religious gatherings violated health protocols
The gatherings took place less than a week after Shihab's arrival from a three-year exile in Saudi Arabia.
Shihab left Indonesia in 2017 for a pilgrimage to Mecca shortly after police charged him in a pornography case and with insulting the official state ideology. Police dropped both charges a year later due to weak evidence, but authorities in Saudi Arabia had banned him from leaving the country without an explanation.
The Islamic Defenders Front, known by its Indonesian acronym FPI, has a long record of vandalising nightspots, hurling stones at Western embassies and attacking rival religious groups. It wants the Islamic Shariah law to apply to Indonesia’s 230 million Muslims.
The group has gained significant influence in recent years through humanitarian and charity work. It was a key organiser of massive street protests in 2016 and 2017 against the Christian governor of Jakarta, who was subsequently imprisoned for blasphemy.
Indonesia has reported more than 600,000 cases of COVID-19, the largest tally in Southeast Asia.