Indonesian hardline Muslims react after hearing a verdict on Jakarta's first non-Muslim and ethnic-Chinese Christian governor Basuki 'Ahok' Purnama's blasphemy trial outside a court in Jakarta, Indonesia May 9, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta

Deposed Jakarta governor Basuki “Ahok” Purnama’s decision to withdraw his appeal against his conviction and two-year jail sentence for blasphemy adds another layer of confusion to an already baffling court system whose actions critics say often defy logic.

Even legal experts who think they know Indonesian law still cannot understand how the North Jakarta District Court could legally find Purnama guilty of a charge that had already been withdrawn by the prosecution.

Moreover, they shake their heads when asked how the prosecution can continue to appeal the harshness of the sentence, particularly when the defendant himself has decided not to pursue an appeal to the higher courts.

Attorney General H M Prasetyo did not say the government rejected the sentence, only that the appeal was in line with Attorney-General Office (AGO) standard operating procedures – as bizarre as they may be in this case.

The prosecution usually appeals to increase the severity of a sentence, not to seek leniency. Taken all together, the treatment of Purnama underlines how erratic and unpredictable Indonesia’s scales of justice can be.

Now largely toothless because of the way its authority has been degraded over the years, the Judicial Commission receives a constant stream of complaints about the conduct of lower court judges it is still allowed to supervise.

Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Purnama sits on the defendant’s chair for acourt hearing in Jakarta, Indonesia, Thursday, April 20, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Tatan Syuflana/Pool

In 2006, a year after the commission’s inception, the Constitutional Court found in favor of 31 Supreme Court judges who challenged the commission’s power to investigate Supreme Court and Constitutional Court justices.

Six years later, the Supreme Court invalidated eight key sections of Indonesia’s Judicial Code for Ethics and Guidelines for Judicial Behavior, including those which prohibit judges from favoring one party over another when handling cases in which they have an interest.

In 2015, the commission suffered a further major blow to its powers when the Constitutional Court upheld a judicial review filed by the Indonesian Judges Association that deprived it of the right to select candidates for the bench.

It is widely believed Purnama dropped his appeal to avoid a tougher punishment, always a possibility when it is not clear what factors led the five judges to convict him in the first place — without one dissenting voice.

After all, the grounds for an appeal appear so obvious that under any normal circumstances Purnama should not have had to bother unpacking his suitcase in his prison cell.

Governor Basuki “Ahok” Purnama supporters protest outside the prison where he was taken following his blasphemy conviction in Jakarta, Indonesia May 9, 2017. The sign reads “Ahok is not guilty.” Photo: Reuters/Darren Whiteside

The former governor, who likens himself to Nemo, the loveable cartoon goldfish, insists that is not the reason. As his tearful wife explained at a press conference, he doesn’t want the case to drag on and cause further social discord.

A noble gesture, perhaps, but it also helps build his reputation as a martyr to the country’s secularists, which is not what hard-line Islamic groups may have intended in pushing the case against a man whose real crime in their eyes appears to be that he is an ethnic Chinese Christian.

But given the death threats he continues to receive, even while behind bars, it is believed Purnama may also have worried about the safety of his wife and three children.

“We knew that this trial is trial by mob,” said Purnama’s sister, a member of his defense team who had lodged his appeal papers only an hour before he decided not to proceed. “We all knew this case was stronger in political content than it was in legal content.”

Hardline Muslim groups protest against Jakarta’s incumbent governor Basuki “Ahok” Purnama (Ahok). The sign reads: “Reject Ahok.” Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta

United Nations human rights officials have urged the government to review and repeal its criminalization of blasphemy, saying it has no place in a democratic nation that prides itself on being tolerant and protective of minorities.

“It is disappointing that instead of speaking out against hate speech by the leaders of the (anti-Purnama) protests, the Indonesian authorities appear to have appeased to religious intolerance and discrimination,” the UN officials said in a statement.

The situation appears to be more complicated than that. One experienced legal expert in Jakarta says the case suggests the Indonesian judiciary not only wants to be independent of the government, but literally a law into itself.

Australian law lecturer Melissa Crouch agrees, seeing it as part of a broader legal battle between the courts and the executive, and between religious authorities and the state.

Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Purnama in court before his blasphemy verdict is read in Jakarta, Indonesia May 9, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Bay Ismoyo/Pool

That first contention appears obvious in the way the court disregarded the Attorney-General Office’s downgrading of the blasphemy charge to one of hate speech, with a recommended two-year period of probation.

Announced on May 20, only a day after Purnama lost the Jakarta gubernatorial election to former education minister Anies Baswaden, it suggested the political fix was in and that the court had no other choice but to follow.

United Nations human rights officials have urged the government to review and repeal its criminalization of blasphemy, saying it has no place in a democratic nation that prides itself on being tolerant and protective of minorities.

Crouch says this reflects a basic misunderstanding of what she calls “judicial defiance.” As she wrote in a recent commentary: “Indonesian judges are fiercely protective of their independence to a point that it now borders on a gross lack of accountability.”

They apparently react badly to slights as well. Australian Schapelle Corby is widely believed to have received a 20-year sentence for marijuana smuggling because the Australian media claimed she had been railroaded by a corrupt legal system.

As Crouch notes, the second legal battle has seen the lower courts adopt a deferential line in their approach to religious-related crimes, convicting all 106 people accused of blasphemy during the previous Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono presidency.

In the Purnama case, two of the five judges were a Christian and a Hindu. The Christian died during the four-month trial and was replaced by a Muslim, but that is not open to criticism because jurors are not meant to be assigned according to their religion.