One of Indonesia’s most senior radical Muslim clerics could face the death penalty after prosecutors formally lodged terrorism charges against him on Wednesday.
Abu Bakar Bashir, an elderly cleric long accused of being a main terrorist ideologue, was charged with coordinating and financing a militant group that was violently suppressed by the police last year after it set up an armed training camp in the northern Sumatran province of Aceh.
Prosecutors lodged the case file with the charges, which contain a maximum sentence of death, on the same day that defense lawyers mounted a constitutional challenge to Bashir’s long detention since his arrest in August last year.
A lawyer for Bashir, Mahendradatta, said the case against Bashir was based on flimsy evidence and accused the authorities of deliberately delaying the cleric’s trial in order to keep him detained.
“He’s already getting old, why do they have to detain him? This is proof that their true purpose is to keep Ustad silent,” Mahendradatta said, using an honorific term for some Muslim men.
Bashir, who leads an above-ground Islamic organization called Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid, was being persecuted to please the US, Mahendradatta said.
“Now, everybody knows that Ustad is just a kitty, not a tiger,” the lawyer said. “A kitty, just some ordinary guy who speaks anti-America, anti-something, like that, but doesn’t have any power to execute his speech.”
The authorities, however, said Bashir played a central role in the operation of a short-lived coalition of militants, calling itself al-Qaeda of the Veranda of Mecca, which stockpiled weapons and carried out training in Aceh’s jungles.
The police wiped out the group’s Aceh training camp last year.
Subsequent crackdowns saw scores of terrorism suspects arrested or killed, including Dulmatin, one of Southeast Asia’s most wanted terrorism suspects.