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Basuki Tjahaja Purnama: Jakarta's ex-governor jailed for blasphemy

Jakarta's Christian governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama -- seen here at his trial in 2017 -- won praise for his efforts to clean up Jakarta before his fall from grace
Jakarta's Christian governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama -- seen here at his trial in 2017 -- won praise for his efforts to clean up Jakarta before his fall from grace Jakarta's Christian governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama -- seen here at his trial in 2017 -- won praise for his efforts to clean up Jakarta before his fall from grace POOL/AFP
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Jakarta (AFP)

Jakarta's ex-governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who was released from prison Thursday after serving nearly two years for blasphemy, won praise for his efforts to clean up the traffic-choked megacity and clamp down on corruption.

With his outspoken, combative style and can-do attitude, Purnama cut an unusual figure among the political elite in Muslim-majority Indonesia, where politicians typically take a more gentle, persuasive approach.

But the tall, bespectacled politician, who was the city's first non-Muslim governor for half a century and first ever ethnic Chinese leader, quickly overcame any doubts about his leadership as he took concrete steps to improve the city of 10 million.

The 52-year-old -- best known by his nickname Ahok -- regularly railed against corruption in one of the world's most graft-ridden countries and led sting operations to catch lazy bureaucrats, drawing praise from a public weary of the city's inefficiencies.

Many Jakartans loved him and a movie about him -- "A man called Ahok" -- was released last year to sold-out crowds.

The former deputy governor inherited the top job in 2014 after his predecessor Joko Widodo won the presidency.

On Purnama's watch, roads were repaired, pavements improved, more parks started appearing in the city and its notoriously filthy rivers were cleaned up.

Some of his policies -- particularly a drive to evict poor, riverside communities -- caused anger, but many Jakartans said their lives had changed for the better since he took power.

But his aggressive, outspoken style, an advantage when taking on bungling officials, turned out to be a double-edged sword that contributed to his downfall.

- Public pressure -

In September 2016, in a speech to a group of fisherman during early campaigning for Jakarta's 2017 election, Ahok accused his opponents of using a Koranic verse to trick them into voting against him.

The comments were filmed and went viral online -- providing ammunition for fringe hardline groups who had long railed against a non-Muslim leader ruling the capital and his political opponents who were keen to oust him from the job and embarrass his ally Widodo.

Despite his apologies and insistence that he only intended to attack his rivals, not the Koran itself, hundreds of thousands of conservative Muslims took to the streets of Jakarta in mass rallies in late 2016, organised by hardliners and encouraged by his political rivals.

Under intense public pressure, authorities put him on trial for blasphemy and his popularity slumped.

He lost the Jakarta election in April 2017 to a Muslim challenger and was jailed the following month for two years for blasphemy, a shock decision after prosecutors recommended only probation.

Purnama was born into a well-off family on Belitung island in western Indonesia, and studied geology at university in Jakarta, before returning to his village and going into business.

His father urged him to use his talents to help those less fortunate than himself, and he entered local politics in 2004.

He was elected to the national parliament in 2009, where he met Widodo and they then ran in the Jakarta 2012 election with Widodo as the governor candidate and Purnama as the deputy governor.

His true legacy, however, may not be the roads or parks he created, but his personality, said Syamsuddin Haris, a political analyst at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences.

"His legacy will be his openness, honesty, bravery, decisive leadership and his stand against corruption," Haris said.

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