Indonesian cleric Abu Bakar Bashir yesterday denied leading an al--Qaeda-style group that was plotting attacks and assassinations in Indonesia, as his trial resumed amid tight security.
The cleric who is regarded as a spiritual leader of Islamist militants around the region is accused of leading a militant group that was discovered training recruits in Aceh Province last year.
Police jostled with about 200 of the frail 72-year-old’s radical supporters who tried to enter the court as he arrived under tight guard amid shouts of Allahu akbar (God is great).
Wearing his usual white robes, skull cap and shawl, the preacher smiled and looked calm as he was escorted through the crowd by members of the elite Detachment 88 anti-terror police squad.
“I am convinced that based on Islamic Shariah [law], the physical and weapons training in a mountainous area in Aceh was an act of worship by Muslims as ordered by God to deter Muslim enemies,” he said, reading from a 90-page defence document. “This exercise is equally as important as prayer, fasting ... but this holy task has been insulted by God’s enemies, the Detachment 88, by accusing them of being terrorists.”
He also called the democratically elected government “poisonous” for its failure to outlaw a minority Islamic sect which has suffered from years of persecution and violence at the hands of Islamic extremists.
Bashir could face the death penalty if convicted of the charges, which include leading and financing a terrorist group and supplying illegal weapons.
The so-called al-Qaeda in Aceh group was planning Mumbai-style attacks using squads of suicide gunmen against Westerners, police and political leaders, including Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, according to police.
Its operations leader, Indonesian bomb maker Dulmatin, was killed by police in March last year. Scores of other members of the group have been killed or captured.
Bashir denies any involvement in terrorism and claims he is being framed by the US and its allies including Australia and “the Jews.”
He is an alleged co-founder of the Jemaah Islamiyah regional terror organization blamed for multiple attacks, including the 2002 Bali bombings that killed 202 people, mainly Western tourists.
Bashir claims that attack was actually a US missile strike.
The Islamic teacher, whose former students read like a who’s-who of Indonesian extremism, served almost 26 months behind bars for the Bali bombings, but his conviction was overturned after his release in 2006.
Prosecutors have also unsuccessfully charged him with involvement in church bombings in 2000 and the Marriott hotel attack in Jakarta in 2003.
Two years after his release from prison Bashir founded another group, Jemaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT), to continue agitating for Shariah law.
Police say JAT was a front for a new campaign of terrorism in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority state.
However, Bashir said the Aceh group was only doing what had been “ordered by God to deter Muslim enemies so that they won’t dare to harm Muslim communities.”
Some 80 percent of Indonesia’s 240 million people are Muslims and the country has a reputation as a bastion of pluralist tolerance.
However, its moderate image has been shaken by recent attacks on religious minorities, including Christians and the Ahmadiyah Islamic sect.