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Indonesian police arrest firebrand Islamic cleric Habib Rizieq Shihab on suspicion of having breached coronavirus restrictions by holding events that drew thousands of followers. Photo: Reuters

Indonesia arrests firebrand cleric Habib Rizieq Shihab for breaking coronavirus restrictions

  • The leader of the Islamic Defender Front held sermons and rallies with thousands of people after returning from exile in Saudi Arabia
  • Six of his followers were recently killed in a highway shoot-out with Jakarta police
A firebrand Indonesian Muslim cleric was arrested on Sunday for allegedly breaching coronavirus restrictions after he held a series of sermons with tens of thousands of followers.
Habib Rizieq Shihab’s arrest came just days after Jakarta police shot dead six followers of his hardline Islamist group in a highway shoot-out.

Shihab will be detained for 20 days to prevent him from fleeing and destroying evidence, police said.

“Another reason for the detention is for him not to repeat the offence,” National Police spokesman Argo Yuwono said on Sunday.

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If found guilty, he could face six years behind bars for breaching coronavirus rules.

Shihab was welcomed by tens of thousands of followers at Jakarta airport on his return from exile last month, in violation of a Covid-19 ban on gatherings.

As dozens who attended that gathering subsequently tested positive for the coronavirus, police summoned Shihab several times for questioning.

Indonesia has reported more than 600,000 coronavirus infections and over 18,500 deaths, with authorities imposing nationwide restrictions to curb the spread of the disease.

Despite those restrictions, Shihab held sermons, a celebration of the birthday of Islam’s Prophet Mohammed, and his daughter’s wedding – all of which were attended by thousands of people.

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The charismatic leader of the Islamic Defender Front (FPI), Shihab fled to Saudi Arabia soon after police named him a suspect in a pornography case in 2017, and remained in exile for three years.

Since his return, he has called for a “moral revolution”.

His FPI is notorious for targeting nightclubs and other establishments it deems “immoral”, and has also attacked minority Muslim sects it considers “deviant”.

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He was among the main figures behind mass rallies in 2016 against the then governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, over allegations that he insulted the Koran.

Basuki, who is Christian, was sentenced to two years in prison for blasphemy.