Indonesia’s best-known radical cleric went on trial yesterday on charges of setting up a terror cell accused of plotting high-profile assassinations and attacks on foreigners in the world’s most populous Muslim nation.
Abu Bakar Bashir, 72, faces a maximum penalty of death if found guilty.
“These charges against me are fabricated,” the smiling, white-bearded cleric said as he arrived at the tightly guarded South Jakarta District Court. “All I ever wanted to do was defend Islam.”
Indonesia, a secular nation of more than 237 million people, has been hit by a string of suicide bombings blamed on the al-Qaeda-linked network Jemaah Islamiyah that was allegedly founded by Bashir more than a decade ago. More than 260 people have been killed since 2002, many of them foreign tourists.
Bashir, known for his fiery sermons that experts say incite violence, has been tried in recent years for conspiracy in those attacks. However, only lesser charges, such as violating immigration laws, for which he spent 26 months in jail, have ever stuck.
This time, prosecutors say they have enough evidence for a conviction on terrorism charges.
Bashir was accused of helping set up, fund, arm and mobilize foot soldiers for a new terror cell that was uncovered one year ago in Aceh Province.
Police say al-Qaeda-in-Aceh was planning Mumbai-style attacks on Western hotels and embassies and several high-profile assassinations, including on Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
The group is also blamed for commando-styled armed robberies on banks last year, allegedly to help buy weapons and finance terrorist acts.
“The defendant supported illegal military training and provided funds to buy weapons, ammunition and explosives,” prosecutor Muhammad Taufik said, adding that Bashir’s actions “created widespread fear and panic among the people.”
The courtroom, rung by more than 2,000 police, was packed with his supporters.
They interrupted proceedings with shouts of “God is Great!” every time the cleric was mentioned by name.
Judges adjourned the trial until next week, when Bashir’s lawyers are due to respond to the charges.
Though Indonesia’s fight against terrorism has won praise, with hundreds of militants killed or captured and convicted, militants have proved to be a resilient foe.
While Jemaah Islamiyah has been severely weakened, with remaining members saying they no longer support violence as a means to achieve their goal of creating an Islamic state, new groups like the Aceh cell have continued to pop up.
At the same time, the country is grappling with religious tensions and violence.
On Feb. 6, 1,500 hard-liners attacked Ahmadiyah sect members with sticks and machetes, killing three men. Two days later, a mob set two churches ablaze to protest a Christian’s blasphemy sentence as too lenient.