Militant cleric sentenced in Indonesia

The alleged spiritual leader of the Jemaah Islamiyah terror group was convicted Tuesday of sedition.

The four-year sentence given Tuesday to Abu Bakar Bashir, the man Indonesia and the United States allege is the spiritual leader of the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) terror group that in recent years has murdered more than 300 people in Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, satisfied no one.

The sentence didn't satisfy Mr. Bashir's supporters, who chanted "God is Great" outside the courthouse and claimed their leader had been framed by the CIA. And it didn't satisfy the victims of JI violence, or the foreign governments who believe Bashir is at the center of a terrorist network that may number as many as 1,000.

Indeed, what the muddled ruling may have best achieved is to illustrate how difficult it will be to fight the war on terror in the courts of the world's most populous Muslim nation, which does not have a strong tradition of judicial independence or professional prosecutions. Indonesia's Suharto dictatorship fell in 1998, and attempts at legal reform have been halting.

Bashir was acquitted of the most serious charge against him: That he is the leader, or emir, of the JI. He was convicted of forgery, immigration violations stemming from a 1985 flight abroad following a treason conviction, and of "knowing about an organization that is trying to topple the government,'' said Mohammed Saleh, chairman of the judicial panel that ruled in the case.

"I think the evidence was there to sentence Bashir to a long time in jail,'' says Andi Asrun at Judicial Watch, an Indonesian organization pushing for legal reform. "But I don't blame the judges for the sentence - the evidence wasn't well organized and the prosecution didn't focus on the right things."

Most troubling, analysts say, was the prosecution's failure to focus on Bashir's simple criminal involvement in the bombings of 17 Indonesian churches on Christmas Eve 2000. Faiz bin Abu Bakar Bafana, a confessed member of JI in detention in Singapore, testified via teleconference in the trial that Bashir had attended planning meetings for those attacks. And other confessed JI members testified that they were working for Bashir.

But as Mr. Asrun points out, under the old system, the political decision would have been made to convict Bashir, and the quality of the prosecution would have been largely irrelevant. That has left the country with an ineffectual legal system, and a cadre of prosecutors and judges without well honed skills.

The JI is alleged to be the Southeast Asian adjunct of Al Qaeda. Many of its members trained at Al Qaeda affiliated camps in Afghanistan from the mid-1980s through the early 1990s. The stated goal of the JI, which is led by Indonesians but has Thai, Malaysian, Singaporean, and Filipino members, is to establish an Islamic state stretching from southern Thailand across the Malay archipelago to the southern Philippines.

The grandfatherly Bashir founded Al-Mukmin Islamic boarding school in Central Java with his close friend and comrade Abdullah Sungkar in the early 1970s. The school has produced participants in almost every major attack linked to JI, including the attack on two Bali nightclubs last October that left 202 dead.

Asmar Latin Sani, the alleged suicide bomber who killed 12 people at Jakarta's Marriott Hotel in early August, was also a graduate of Al-Mukmin.

Bashir has frequently said: "I am not responsible for the actions of my students." In a radio interview two weeks ago, he dismissed US claims that he's the leader of a terror group, saying, "America is the real terrorist: It's like a thief shouting 'thief!' "

Indonesia has made 10 arrests in the latest Marriott attack, but the Indonesian police say the most senior JI member involved - a former Malaysian professor named Azahari Husin, remains at large.

There have also been major breakthroughs in other investigations. Almost two dozen men are on trial for the Bali attack, and Riduan Isammudin, the alleged operations head for the group better known as Hambali, was recently arrested in Thailand.

The problem now, for the government of Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri, is going after the handful of boarding schools that seem to be at the center of the JI's network. Al-Mukmin remains open to this day.

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