Supporters of Rizieq Shihab, leader of the Indonesian hardline organisation FPI (Front Pembela Islam or Islamic Defenders Front), gather in a show of support for the firebrand cleric in front of the Baiturrahman grand mosque in Banda Aceh on December 8, 2020, after at least six of his supporters were shot dead December 7 near Jakarta as they tried to reach a police station where Shihab was to be questioned for allegedly violating coronavirus restrictions. (Photo by CHAIDEER MAHYUDDIN / AFP)

JAKARTA – Human rights groups are calling for an inquiry into the unprecedented shooting deaths of six Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) bodyguards after police engaged in an early morning pursuit of a convoy carrying FPI leader Rizieq Shihab on an East Jakarta expressway.

The December 7 incident will likely inflame tensions between government security forces and the extremist organization, which claims to have 15 million followers mostly concentrated in West Java, the country’s most populous province.

Police were shadowing Shihab after he had failed to answer two summons for questioning on allegations that he had breached Covid-19 health protocols by hosting  a series of mass gatherings after his return from three years of exile in Saudi Arabia.

A further date had been set for mid-morning on December 7 and Shihab was reportedly upset at police setting up surveillance at his house in Bogor and had moved to a new location near Sentul, a suburb closer to the capital on Sunday night.

But plainclothes officers were still trailing him when he left there with his wife and a number of children in an eight-vehicle convoy soon after midnight on Monday morning to attend a supposed Koran-reading session on the other side of the city.

What happened after that is still unclear. As the pursued and the pursuers raced along the Cikampek toll road, radio exchanges indicated that at least two of the FPI cars veered from one side of the carriageway to the other to block the police from passing.

Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) leader Rizieq Shihab arrives at the International Soekarno-Hatta Airport in Tangerang, Indonesia on November 10, 2020. Image: Anton Raharjo / Anadolu Agency via AFP

In the end, according to official accounts, police shot out the tires of one vehicle, which had allegedly attempted a ramming maneuver.  It was then that six people emerged with what were claimed to be two revolvers and “bladed weapons,” including a samurai sword and a sickle, causing police to open fire.

Police claimed the victims had fired three shots during the final stages of the post-midnight chase, but FPI spokesmen disputed that version of events with chairman Ahmad Shabri Lubis asserting they were unarmed when accosted by so-called “preman” (criminals).

FPI secretary-general Munarman described the shooting as an “extrajudicial killing” and said Shihab had been “stalked 24 hours a day” by three police teams since his return to a tumultuous November 10 airport welcome from some 50,000 supporters.

President Joko Widodo had described Shihab’s actions as a threat to national unity. He appears to have public support in containing the firebrand cleric, who has filled a leadership vacuum among Islamic hardliners and even some mainstream conservatives.

Shihab has been quick to embrace his new-found relevance and status. Political analysts believe he is receiving some backing from opposition politicians and members of the country’s oligarchy who see him as commanding an influential vote block in future elections.

Diplomats feel that by persuading Saudi Arabia to keep him on ice, the government gave the 55-year-old cleric the gravitas he did not have when he fled Indonesia in 2017 to escape embarrassing charges of internet sex-texting he passes off as being politically-motivated.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, wearing traditional Balinese attire, attends a ceremony to celebrate Indonesia’s 74th Independence Day at the presidential palace in Jakarta, Indonesia on August 17, 2019. Photo: AFP Forum via Anadolu Agency/Anton Raharjo

Jakarta police chief Inspector-General Fadil Imran, newly-appointed after his predecessor was fired for not enforcing Covid protocols, say the surveillance was part of an operation to prevent thousands of Shihab’s followers assembling ahead of his scheduled questioning.

Earlier, national police chief Gen Idham Azis lashed out at the violent behavior of FPI Laskar Khusus (special forces) “thugs,“ who had sought to prevent officers from serving Shihab with the latest summons, saying the state ”won’t bow to pressure.”

Both Azis and Jakarta regional military commander Major General Dudung Abdurachman, another new appointee, have taken a hard line with an organization that for decades has appeared to attack minority groups and entertainment places with impunity.

Amnesty International Indonesia executive director Usman Hamid called for a transparent investigation into Monday’s shooting incident to determine the circumstances that led up to the killings and whether police issued a warning before resorting to deadly force.

“The police should only use force, particularly firearms, as a last resort in extreme situations to protect themselves and others from death or serious injury,” he said in a statement.

Police did not say what weapons they employed. They have also not released pictures or video from the scene and the state-owned Jasa Maga tollroad operator said the CCTV network was down on the 23-kilometer stretch of the Jakarta-Cikampek expressway where the shooting took place.