Indonesian court slashes radical cleric's sentence

AP News
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Posted: Oct 26, 2011 9:48 AM
Indonesian court slashes radical cleric's sentence

A radical Islamic cleric accused of setting up a terror training camp in western Indonesia had his prison sentence slashed from 15 years to nine years, an appeals court said Wednesday. No reason was given for the decision.

Abu Bakar Bashir, known as the spiritual leader of al-Qaida-linked militants blamed for the 2002 Bali bombings, was accused of providing key support for the camp that brought together men from almost every known extremist group in the predominantly Muslim country.

They were allegedly planning Mumbai-styled gun attacks on foreigners in the capital, Jakarta, and the assassinations of moderate leaders, including President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

In March, a district court sentenced the 72-year-old cleric to 15 years in prison for inciting terrorism, but his lawyers appealed.

The Jakarta High Court quietly handed down its ruling Oct. 20.

"All I can say right now is that his sentence was reduced to nine years," Achmad Sobari, a court spokesman, told The Associated Press.

"I do not know exactly what factors were taken into account in the judge's decision."

Bashir's lawyer, Mohammad Mahendradatta, said he was awaiting official notification from the court. He stressed, however, that his client was innocent and should be freed.

Even nine years was an outrage, he said, vowing to appeal to the Supreme Court.

Indonesia, a secular nation of 240 million people, was thrust into the front lines in the battle against terrorism in 2002, when Jemaah Islamiyah, co-founded by Bashir, attacked two crowded nightclubs on the resort island of Bali.

Many of the 202 people killed were Australian tourists. Seven were Americans.

There have been several suicide bombings since then, but all have been less deadly, and the most recent was two years ago, something analysts attribute to a security crackdown that has resulted in hundreds of arrests and convictions.

Just as it appeared the country's terror threat was diminishing, however, authorities discovered the jihadi training camp in westernmost Aceh province early last year.

Bashir, a potent symbol for the country's radical Islamists, spent several previous stints in detention. But efforts to link him to terrorist activities have repeatedly fallen short.

Arrested almost immediately after the Bali blasts, prosecutors were unable to prove direct involvement, and judges sentenced him to 18 months in prison on relatively minor charges of immigration violations.

Soon after his release, he was re-arrested and sentenced to 2 1/2 years, this time for inciting the twin nightclub attacks. That charge was overturned on appeal and he was freed in 2006.

Last year, Bashir was brought in again, this time for his role in the Aceh camp.

Captured militants testified that the aging cleric watched a video as they trained and received written reports assuring him the $100,000 he'd helped raised was being used for the struggle to build an Islamic state.

Judges said, however, they didn't have enough evidence to prove Bashir knew the money was going to be used to buy guns, ammunition and equipment for training, settling just on incitement.

Security analyst Noor Huda Ismail called the cat-and-mouse game with Bashir "the weakest link" in the war on terrorism.

"First police and prosecutors demanded he be given life or a death sentence, but there wasn't adequate evidence, so they gave him 15.

"And now, again, they cut it to just nine?"

At the same time, other perpetrators like Bali bomber Ali Imron _ spared the death sentence because he expressed remorse and has cooperated with police _ will likely lose confidence in the judicial system.

While they're serving prison sentences of 12, 15 years or life, Bashir, unrepentant, continues to see his sentences slashed, he said.

The cleric told reporters before the March verdict he didn't know about the Aceh camp when it was operational but approved of its aim.

He said he was a victim of a U.S. and Australian conspiracy and that all charges against him were fabricated in an attempt to put him away for good.

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Associated Press writer Ali Kotarumalos contributed to this report.