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Islamist protesters fuel political tension over Indonesia's plastic surgery scandal

By Agustinus Beo Da Costa and Fanny Potkin

JAKARTA (Reuters) - Hardline Islamists protested in Indonesia's capital on Wednesday over the investigation of an opposition activist who claimed that bruising on her face was caused by a politically motivated assault but later admitted that it was due to cosmetic surgery.

The furore over 69-year-old Ratna Sarumpaet's bizarre case has stoked political tensions in Jakarta ahead of next April's presidential election, which will pit incumbent Joko Widodo against retired army general Prabowo Subianto.

Sarumpaet, one of Prabowo's campaign advisers, has been a strident critic of Widodo's government and figurehead of a "2019 Change the President" movement.

After she claimed last week that she had been attacked by three assailants for her political work, a photograph of her face looking swollen and bruised went viral on social media.

Prabowo then told a news conference on Oct. 2 that the assault was a "human rights abuse" and a "repressive act".

However, police found that Sarumpaet had undergone plastic surgery on her face at a Jakarta hospital and charged her with spreading a hoax, a punishable offence in Indonesia.

Sarumpaet acknowledged that her appearance was due to liposuction surgery and said she had been trying to hide it from her family.

"There was no assault," she told reporters, before being arrested last Friday as she tried to leave Indonesia.

A BLOW FOR WIDOWO'S CHALLENGER

Sarumpaet was fired from the opposition campaign, and Prabowo apologised for believing her story. However, police reports were made against several prominent members of the opposition camp for their previous support of Sarumpaet.

Conservative Muslim leader Amien Rais was the first of them to be questioned on Wednesday, to the anger of his supporters.

More than 100 members of the hardline Alumni 212 and Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) gathered with loudspeakers and flags in front of the police station where he was being question, saying they were there to protect him.

The groups were behind protests that culminated in the election defeat and jailing for blasphemy in 2017 of Jakarta's ethnic-Chinese and Christian governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, an ally of President Widodo.

Prabowo campaign spokesman Dahnil Anzar Simanjuntak told reporters on Tuesday that he considered Rais' summons to be politically motivated.

Widodo's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle has brought a separate complaint against the Prabowo campaign to the Elections Supervisory Agency over the scandal, accusing it of spreading fake news. The agency has said it will examine whether the case constituted a campaign violation.

Analysts say the controversy is unlikely to be a lasting crisis for Prabowo but it is still a blow for the challenger, who is already trailing far behind Widodo in opinion polls.

"The Sarumpaet affair may recede from headlines soon, but it has impacted Prabowo's image while posing distractions that have squandered finite time to campaign," said independent analyst Kevin O' Rourke.

Sarumpaet's lawyer, Insank Nasruddin, told Reuters that his client had meant her lie to be limited to her family, which did not know about the surgery, and her defence would focus on proving that she was not responsible for it going viral.

This is not the first fake news allegation made against Sarumpaet. In 2018, she said on Twitter that the government had issued a 200,000 rupiah note, an assertion the central bank declared was a hoax.

(Writing by Fanny Potkin; Editing by John Chalmers, Robert Birsel)

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