Court sentences Muslim cleric to 4 years in prison

Wednesday, September 3, 2003

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- A court sentenced Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Bashir on Tuesday to four years in prison for sedition, but threw out charges that he belonged to al-Qaida's main Asian ally -- even though some of Southeast Asia's top terror suspects have named him as the group's spiritual leader.

The trial was seen as a key test of Indonesia's commitment to confronting Islamic militancy, and the mixed result and lenient sentence was a blow to Indonesia's efforts to combat terrorism.

Judges said there was insufficient evidence that the ailing, soft-spoken 65-year-old preacher is the top power behind -- or even a member of -- Jemaah Islamiyah, the group blamed for the October 2002 Bali nightclub bombings and the Aug. 5 bombing of Jakarta's Marriott Hotel.

However, they also found that Bashir was privy to -- and did nothing to stop -- plans by Jemaah Islamiyah to overthrow the government of Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation.

"The defendant ... had knowledge of an organization that is trying to topple the government," Judge Muhammad Saleh said, issuing the five-judge panel's sometimes contradictory decision. "That is why the secondary charge has been proven."

The sentence, which fell well short of the 15 years imprisonment sought by prosecutors, suggested that Indonesian authorities want to curb extremism without alienating mainstream Islamic opinion.

Governments in the region had been urging Jakarta to arrest Bashir. They produced witnesses who implicated the cleric in the terror network.

But defense attorneys challenged the testimony from suspects held without trial in Singapore and Malaysia.

The judges apparently accepted the defense's claims that key testimony was obtained under torture, and that the witnesses -- who addressed the judges via video-link -- should have been brought to Indonesia to speak freely in open court.

Several hundred of Bashir's supporters packed the streets around the courthouse in Jakarta and cheered when Saleh -- in his six-hour summation -- first cleared Bashir of the main charge and ordered him set free. But the mood turned bitter when the final verdict came, and some chanted "Hang America."

Bashir, who is being held in a detention facility in Jakarta, said he would appeal.

"I cannot accept the judgment," he said.

"There was not a single proof that Bashir intended to topple the government," defense attorney Adnan Nasution said.

The trial was politically sensitive for President Megawati Sukarnoputri, whose coalition government depends on the support of moderate Muslim parties. Her vice president, Hamzah Haz, has in the past expressed support for Bashir's campaign for the imposition of Islamic law in Indonesia.

Analysts said Indonesian authorities are eager to curb extremism but worried about alienating mainstream Islamic opinion and provoking a backlash.

"The message being sent is rather underwhelming," said Ken Conboy, who runs Risk Management Advisory, a Jakarta-based security consultancy. "It looks like they weren't willing to play hardball with him."

Bashir was arrested last October in the wake of the Bali nightclub bombings, which killed 202 people. Last month, a special court in Bali sentenced to death a Muslim radical for his role in the attacks on two nightclubs on the island.

Bashir was not been charged with involvement in the Bali blasts or the Marriott bombing, which killed 12 people. But prosecutors maintained that under his leadership, Jemaah Islamiyah plotted to kill Megawati and establish a hardline Islamic regime.

Judges found him guilty of sedition, as well as entering Indonesia illegally in 1999.

"In order that the defendant does not repeat his mistake ... he must be punished," the decision said. "We, the judges, hand down a sentence of four years in prison."

During the trial, prosecutors brought forth witnesses to link Bashir to Jemaah Islamiyah, which is said to be seeking to establish a fundamentalist super-state in Southeast Asia. Bashir repeated his claims that the group does not exist and that the United States and Israel fabricated the charges against him.

Bashir, revered by followers as a moral authority, runs a religious boarding school in Central Java. Its graduates include many of the operatives allegedly involved in attacks such as the one in Bali.

Foreign governments also have linked Bashir with Indonesian radical Riduan Isamuddin, known as Hambali, who was arrested in Thailand last month and is being interrogated by U.S. authorities at an undisclosed location. Hambali is said to be the operations chief of Jemaah Islamiyah, and al-Qaida's point man in Southeast Asia.

The United States and Australia have warned their citizens to avoid travel to Indonesia because of the high risk of further anti-Western atrocities staged by Jemaah Islamiyah.

Analysts also warned that far from ending the threat, the trial's verdict could fuel further extremism.

"Some of Bashir's supporters are going to look at the four-year sentence and say it's not more than a glorified slap on the wrist," Conboy said. "In fact, they could well be emboldened by it."

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