A radical Islamic cleric on trial in Indonesia defended violence against nonbelievers Thursday but denied charges he led a terrorist cell that was allegedly preparing high-profile assassinations and attacks on Western hotels and embassies.
Abu Bakar Bashir, who has twice escaped terrorism-related convictions, told judges at the tightly guarded South Jakarta District Court he was a victim of a U.S. conspiracy and that all charges against him were fabricated.
He faces a maximum penalty of death if found guilty of helping set up, fund and arm a new terrorist cell and militant training camp that was uncovered in western Aceh province just over a year ago.
Bashir said he was unaware of the training camp when it was operating, though he approves of its aim.
"I only learned about this after the fact," said the 72-year-old imam. "But I'm convinced that, based on Islamic law, physical and weapons training in Aceh's mountains was a religious act, ordered by God to strike fear in the hearts of enemies of Islam."
"It's just as important as praying and fasting," he said, reading from his 90-page defense document. "But God's enemies ... have added insult to this holy task by accusing Allah and his messenger of being the source of terror."
Indonesia, a secular nation of 237 million people, was thrust into the front lines in the battle against terrorism in 2002, when the al-Qaida-linked militant network Jemaah Islamiyah attacked two crowded nightclubs on the resort island of Bali, killing 202 people, many of them foreign tourists.
There have been several suicide bombings since then, but all have been less deadly, and the most recent was two years ago.
Most people in the world's most populous Muslim nation practice a moderate form of the faith and abhor violence. But to a small but increasingly vocal hard-line fringe, Bashir is a hero, and he used his nationally televised court appearance to once again rally fellow "believers."
Earlier, hundreds of supporters erupted in cheers of "God is Great!" as the co-founder of Jemaah Islamiyah arrived at the court in a police van, smiling broadly and waving. After being told they could not enter to watch the proceedings, they tried to break down the gates, but riot police quickly forced them back.
Prosecutors say the goal of Al Qaida-in-Aceh, as the new terrorist cell is known, was to carve out an Islamist state.
It had allegedly been planning attacks in the capital, Jakarta, modeled after those carried out in India's financial center of Mumbai in 2008, when 10 gunmen mowed down more than 160 people.
They also were allegedly plotting assassinations of prominent, moderate leaders like President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, considered by radical Islamists a lackey of the West because he has overseen a security crackdown that has netted hundreds of militants.
"My arrest was an order from foreign countries, because the U.S. and Australia do not want to see me free," said Bashir, wearing a white skull cap and a flowing robe. "The police want to make sure I stay in jail. They'd like to kill me, if they could."
He called the country's moderate leaders and its security forces "infidels."
"They should be imposing Islamic law," he said. "That's it ... no bargaining, no arguing."
It's not the first time Bashir has faced terrorism charges or spent time in detention.
He was arrested almost immediately after the Bali bombings, but prosecutors were unable to prove a string of terrorism-related allegations and reduced his four-year prison sentence to 18 months for immigration violations.
Soon after his release, he was re-arrested and sentenced to 2 1/2 years, this time for inciting the nightclub blasts, a charge that was overturned on appeal.
After he was freed in 2006, he started touring the country, making impassioned speeches at rallies and mosques calling for the creation of an Islamic state and condemning foreigners.
Prosecutors will respond to Bashir's defense next week and soon after judges will decide if the trial should move forward.