Indonesian cleric's trial puts focus on rising militancy

JAKARTA Thu Feb 10, 2011 7:44am EST

Radical Indonesian cleric Abu Bakar Bashir arrives for his trial at the South Jakarta court February 10, 2011. REUTERS/Enny Nuraheni

Radical Indonesian cleric Abu Bakar Bashir arrives for his trial at the South Jakarta court February 10, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Enny Nuraheni

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JAKARTA (Reuters) - The spiritual leader of the outlawed Southeast Asian militant network Jemaah Islamiah went back on trial Thursday in a case that refocuses attention on Indonesia's fight against Islamic extremism.

The charges against Abu Bakar Bashir, which carry the death penalty and which he denies, include setting up and financing a terror training camp that plotted to kill President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

The trial began in the same week as two frenzied attacks by militant Muslim mobs. The hearing was immediately adjourned on a technicality until Monday.

Indonesia has won praise for largely defeating Islamic terror, but analysts and rights groups are concerned a recent spike in religious intolerance shows extremism still has a hold on the world's most populous Muslim nation.

Foreign investment has poured into Indonesia's bond and stock markets thanks to improved political stability and successful efforts to combat Islamic militancy since the last significant attack -- the bombing of two hotels in Jakarta in 2009.

But this week has twice seen mobs of youths running riot in the name of defending Islam -- first killing three members of the Ahmadiyya sect that is considered heretical by mainstream Muslims, and then torching two churches to protest against the perceived light sentence of a Catholic accused of blasphemy.

Despite no significant terror attacks in Indonesia for nearly two years, security in the capital is pervasive, with checkpoints placed at the entrance of all major shopping malls, hotels, embassies and government buildings.

Wednesday's trial will be the third for the frail 72-year-old Bashir, who is officially the caretaker of an Islamic boarding school on Java island but has long been considered the spiritual leader of the shadowy Jemaah Islamiah movement, which seeks to establish a Muslim caliphate across Southeast Asia.

He was found not guilty on appeal of terror offences in two previous trials that attempted to link him to the 2002 Bali bombings, but only spent time in prison for lesser charges such as immigration offences.

Thursday, scores of his supporters filled the public gallery of a south Jakarta courtroom, waiting for him to be brought to the dock where he will be charged with helping establish a terror training camp and funding terror organizations -- offences which carry the death penalty.

Men in white skullcaps and women in burqas repeatedly shouted "Allahu akbar" or "God is greatest" throughout the brief court hearing.

"The judges are infidels; Bashir is a mujaheed (holy warrior)," several men in the audience shouted. "Evil will be defeated; Islam will be victorious."

Bashir is also the "Amir" of the above-ground Jema'ah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT) Islamic group, which draws support from thousands of often unemployed youths who attend public rallies and sermons by firebrand preachers. Their ranks have provided recruits for even more radical organizations with links to Jemaah Islamiah and al-Qaeda.

UNLIKELY TO FACE DEATH PENALTY

Analysts say that if Bashir is found guilty he would more likely face a long jail term than execution.

But they say the threat remains of other terror groups forming across the archipelago of over 17,000 islands which are home to around 240 million people, most of them moderate Muslims.

"Bashir is an important figure and there is stronger evidence against him this time," said Sidney Jones of the International Crisis Group (ICG).

"But locking him away does not change the security situation here -- there are still small groups, some with no connection to Bashir, that could carry out attacks.

"The difficult problem is not so much the terrorists but the radical civil society activists who preach intolerance and incite violence against religious minorities. The government has been firm against terrorists but it has allowed religious intolerance to escalate out of control."

Jakarta Police said they had deployed about 3,000 personnel to guard the court where the trial was taking place and armored trucks with water cannon at the ready were stationed in the vicinity.

A team of 32 prosecutors have prepared a 93-page indictment against Bashir, court officials said

"The highlight (of the indictment) is the defendant was gathering funds ... to be used for paramilitary training in Aceh and to purchase weapons," Andi Muhammad Taufik, the head of the prosecutors team told Reuters by telephone.

Before that camp was fully established it was shut down by authorities following a raid in which three police officers and a civilian were killed.

Police said the Aceh-based group had planned to assassinate President Yudhoyono and other government officials at an independence day ceremony last August.

Police also said they held documents saying Bashir was the leader of a group which calls itself al Qaeda of Indonesia and which is the umbrella for four militant Islamic groups including Jemaah Islamiah, Jema'ah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT), Kompak, and Indonesia Islamic State (NII).

(Writing by David Fox; Editing by Jonathan Thatcher)

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