Smack in the middle of the Muslim fasting month of
Ramadan, hordes of international and local reporters
have descended on a makeshift courtroom here to witness
the long-awaited and pivotal trial that pits the state
against one of its people, 66-year-old militant cleric
Abu Bakar Ba'asyir.
The trial opened on
Thursday, only eight days after the inauguration of
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the retired general
who swept to power promising to crack down on terrorism.
Feelings among Muslims everywhere
were running high this week anyway, angered and outraged over
the "brutal" and "inhumane" treatment of Muslim protesters
in Thailand. A total of 78 Thai Muslim protesters
suffocated to death when they were crammed
into army trucks for more than six hours after
a protest on Monday at the Tak Bai district
police station in Thailand's Narathiwat province. Others died of injuries inflicted
by police, brining the total number of deaths to
more than 80. "They packed them like sardines
into trucks. It's inhumane during this holy fasting
month of Ramadan," said Amidhan, head of the influential
Indonesian Council of Ulemas (Islamic religious
A spokesperson from Muhammadiyah,
Indonesia's second-largest Muslim organization, called
the security forces' actions "brutal".
happened was state terrorism," said Dien Syamsuddin. "We
strongly denounce it."
Meanwhile, outside the
court, an auditorium at the Agriculture Ministry in
south Jakarta, hundreds of Muslims from various groups
gathered, though a very large police presence ensured
there was little disturbance. Inside, scores of
Ba'asyir's supporters shouted "Allahu Akbar" (God
is greatest), as police packing M-16 assault rifles led
the cleric to his chair in front of the judges.
In the 65-page indictment, which took three
hours to read out, Ba'asyir was charged with a string of
offences. Some charges relate to the Jakarta JW Marriott
Hotel bombing last August when 12 people were killed, as
well as the establishment of a training camp on the
Philippine island of Mindanao and the discovery of a
cache of explosives in July this year.
the offenses theoretically all come under stringent
anti-terrorism legislation passed in the wake of the
October 2002 Bali nightclub bombings, Ba'asyir cannot be
charged for those attacks under that legislation,
because of a Supreme Court ruling earlier this year that
the legislation, passed after those attacks, could not
be applied retroactively.
He has instead been
charged on criminal counts related to Bali under the
country's criminal code.
The case for the
prosecution rests on proving that Ba'asyir is or was the
spiritual leader of the regional terrorism network
Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) - and therefore must have known
about that attacks, even if he did not actually plan
He is charged with ordering a
fatwa, or religious decree from Osama bin Laden
to wage war against and to kill Americans and their
allies, to be disseminated among JI members. Although an
avowed supporter of Osama bin Laden, Ba'asyir has
consistently denied any involvement in JI and insists
all the accusations against him are part of a US-led
conspiracy to discredit Islam.
majority of Indonesian Muslims are moderates, militants
like Ba'asyir, who also heads the Indonesian Mujahidin
Council (MMI), which wants to turn Indonesia into a
religious state ruled by Islamic law, feed on the
anti-Western sentiment spawned by the earlier demonizing
of Islam by the American press and the insensitive use
of words like "crusade" by the US leadership. Many
Indonesians see the West as always having an ulterior
motive and bent on world domination. You are either
against terrorism or with it, said the West's new
Charlemagne, US President George W Bush, not long after
the September 11, 2001, terror attacks on New York and
Conversely, Western misconceptions
of Islam in Indonesia, particularly the tendency to
equate Islam with extremism, help give radical groups an
edge of credence in mainstream society.
form, Ba'asyir, just before the end of the session,
launched into a tirade accusing the Americans and
Australians of forcing his prosecution. "I ask the panel
of judges and the prosecutors to be careful of attempts
from these two enemies of God, the United States and
Australia," he told the panel of judges.
Ba'asyir's lawyers appear to have jumped on the
same bandwagon. "We hope this trial won't be interfered
in by a certain political power, especially a foreign
one," Muhammad Assegaf, the lead lawyer in the defense
team, told Reuters.
Little wonder that the US
Embassy warned in a statement on Thursday that the
"venue of the terrorism trial...could draw large
crowds", while also reiterating an earlier warning to
Americans to stay away from "all stand-alone bars, clubs
or nightclubs, which could be attacked by protesters".
In April, Ba'asyir's supporters fought pitched
street battles with police when they re-arrested the
cleric as he walked out of Jakarta's Salemba prison
after serving 18 months on immigration violations
US fails to lend a
hand Though the Bush administration has
been exerting strong pressure on Jakarta to prosecute
Ba'asyir, it has steadfastly refused to help the
Some of the
allegations against Ba'asyir come from suspected
terrorist mastermind Hambali, alias Riduan Isamuddin,
al-Qaeda's operational point man in Southeast Asia.
According to a report from the 9-11 Commission, the US
federal commission that probed the September 11, 2001,
terrorist attacks, Hambali told American interrogators
that he had pledged his loyalty to and got his orders
from Ba'asyir. Hambali was seized in a Central
Intelligence Agency (CIA) operation in Bangkok in August
2003 and has since been held by the Americans at a
than a year later Indonesian police have still not been
allowed to interrogate him directly, which means,
ironically, that prosecutors cannot introduce the
Hambali allegations in court without his actually being
present as a witness, to give Ba'asyir's lawyers an
opportunity to cross-examine him.
the charges against Ba'asyir, a month before the Bali
blasts Ba'asyir met with the infamous "smiling bomber"
Amrozi, later sentenced to death after being convicted
of involvement in the bombings, and discussed plans for
Militants who confessed to
involvement in the Marriott bombing claimed the US-owned
hotel was attacked to avenge injustices perpetrated by
Americans and Australians against Muslims in the Middle
East and Afghanistan. Yet most of those killed in the
blast were Muslims. The one foreign fatality was a Dutch
Seventeen people have now been convicted
in connection with that bombing, which also has been
blamed on the JI.
condition Though some 89% of Indonesia's 220
million people profess a belief in Islam, the country is
not an Islamic state. It does not represent the
fundamentalist Islam of Pakistan or Iran, but a much
more emancipated and diluted version of the ancient
The country was founded as a secular
state and remains that to this day, though it has, in
the past, suffered violence at the hands of those flying
the banner of Islam.
The earliest example of
violence perpetrated in the name of Islam was the Darul
Islam movement led by a Javanese mystic named
Kartosuwirjo, who declared an independent Islamic state
in West Java in 1948. Over the next 14 years, more than
40,000 people lost their lives and at least 1 million
were displaced. The rebellion was crushed by founding
president Sukarno in 1962 and its leader executed.
Later, during Suharto's rule, hardline Islamic
groups were a major target of state surveillance and
repression. Suharto's former State Intelligence Agency
(BIN) chief Ahmad Hendropriyono was often linked to the
brutal suppression of Muslims who opposed the regime.
Various acts of violence and subversion were blamed on
them, although some evidence suggests that intelligence
agencies played a role in manipulating former Darul
Hendropriyono, a retired
general, was also a key player in former president
Megawati Sukarnoputri's "war against terror", with BIN
identifying and arresting several suspected terrorists.
He had demanded tougher laws and greater powers for
intelligence agencies to combat terror. A key loyalist
of Megawati, he resigned after Yudhoyono took office.
Militant groups come out of the
woodwork Following Suharto's downfall in May
1998, a number of militant Islamic groups came out of
the woodwork. Laskar Jihad, the main group, deployed up
to 6,000 paramilitary fighters to "protect Muslims" in
the bloody Christian-Muslim conflicts in Maluku and
Central Sulawesi provinces but later disbanded shortly
after the Bali attacks in 2002.
Mujahidin Council that Ba'asyir heads - many members of
which were outside the courtroom on Thursday, shouting
anti-American slogans - and the Islamic Defenders' Front
(FPI), in the news again for violence against "places of
vice", were the other two main organizations that
quickly became known for violent behavior, though they
remained on the fringes of society.
still no evidence that either of these militant groups
have committed terrorist acts, but both remain committed
to the full implementation of Islamic law in Indonesia.
This squares with the alleged JI dream that a
Southeast Asian Islamic caliphate can be established
within the next 10 to 15 years.
Sudarsono, the new defense minister who held the same
post under former president Abdurrahman Wahid, has
described this dream, the so-called street Islam, as the
main appeal for the Islamic poor.
The appeal of
street Islam, and bin Ladenism, to several Islamic
groups in Indonesia is shallow, but its very simplicity
explains a lot for them, Sudarsono said, adding "I think
the poor have always been easily manipulated by the
angry middle class, who have become disillusioned with
their respective governments."
Yet the solid
foundation of Islam in Indonesia is still built on the
two broadly based organizations, Muhammadiyah and
Nahdlatul Ulama, which claim a membership of more than
25% of all Indonesians. Both are moderate in philosophy
and support the country's religiously neutral philosophy
of Pancasila, rejecting calls for Indonesia to become an
The radicals, including Ba'asyir,
want Islamic law (Sharia) to be forced on the world's
biggest Muslim population, and many claim they are ready
to die to achieve this.
Domestic politics will
play an important role in the outcome of this trial. A
severe sentence for Ba'asyir, who could, in theory, face
a firing squad, could mean that he would become a martyr
in Islamic politics. On the other hand, for the public
in general, a fair trial for the cleric would earn kudos
at home for the president and bring the radicals down a
peg or two.
The Indonesian judiciary, almost
without exception, serves the country's vested
interests, which at the moment can safely be assumed to
be those of the new president. But with Western and
Islamic opinion polarized on the opposite sides of the
scales of justice, Yudhoyono and the judges will need to
strike a balance between the need to send a strong
signal to extremists that the fight against terrorism
will be fought on Indonesian soil, regardless of
considerations of religion and associated risks, and the
real risk of alienating the West as he starts his
Bill Guerin has worked
for 19 years in Indonesia as a journalist and editor. He
specializes in business/economy issues and political
analysis related to Indonesia. He has been a Jakarta
correspondent for Asia Times Online since 2000 and has
also been published by the BBC on East Timor. He can be
reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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