Jakarta: Indonesian President Joko Widodo on Saturday condemned the violence in Friday’s protest by Islamist groups against the governor of Jakarta, who has been accused of blasphemy.
Around 50,000 people took part in the protests, organised by the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), to demand the prosecution of Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a Chinese Christian widely known as Ahok, Efe news reported.
The police, who deployed 18,000 officers, used tear gas to disperse the crowd of demonstrators, who threw stones and bottles at the authorities in front of the presidential palace after a peaceful march.
Groups of protesters tried unsuccessfully to enter the grounds of the presidential palace and clashed with the police until early Saturday.
The violence spread to several parts of northern Jakarta, where the country’s ethnic Chinese community lives, as protesters set fire to vehicles and garbage bins and looted some shops, according to The Jakarta Globe newspaper.
President Widodo lamented the chaos and violence following the march caused by protesters who refused to disperse after 6 pm on Friday.
“And we see this was steered by political actors who were exploiting the situation,” he said after a meeting with the army and police chiefs and cabinet members.
The Indonesian President, who met religious leaders this week in a bid to reduce tensions, ordered the demonstrators to disperse and said the investigation into blasphemy charges against Ahok will be carried out in a “firm, quick and transparent” manner.
Issues with Ahok reportedly stem from a verse in the Koran, which the hardline groups have used to argue that Muslims should not allow themselves to be led by a Christian or a Jew.
Ahok has been accused of blasphemy since a recent speech in which he quoted the Koran and claimed that the verse was being used to manipulate voters ahead of the regional elections.
Before the protest, Ahok denied that he had any intention to insult Islam and apologized to all Muslims who had been offended by his remarks but added that the video in which he was seen making the controversial remarks had been manipulated.
Meanwhile, Widodo cancelled his official trip to Australia, scheduled to start Sunday, following the protests, officials announced Saturday.
Widodo was scheduled to travel to Sydney and Canberra on a three-day visit, which included an address to the Australian federal parliament on Monday.