Indonesia Jails Islamic Cleric Bashir

Indonesian Islamist cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, considered the ideological godfather behind the jihadist organization Jemaat-i-Islamiyah and the sponsor of a long spate of bombings, was sentenced Thursday to 15 years behind bars for recruiting and encouraging terrorism activities. ??Prosecutors dropped several serious charges against the cleric including illegal possession or smuggling of arms and explosives and the use of violence to terrorize people, saying they couldn’t be proven in court. .Although they demanded a lifetime sentence, South Jakarta District Presiding Judge Herri Swantoro limited the term to 15 years.

Bashir, 72 could die in prison -- if indeed he were to serve out his full term, which he probably won’t. Critics decried the sentence, saying usually those convicted serve half the time and get additional time off for good behavior. Certainly his past record in the Indonesian courts bears that out.

One critic, in a posting on the Jakarta Globe website, asked: "What is this a joke? He has been convicted before, served a fraction of the time he should have, got out and started doing the same stuff again and you are slapping him with 15 years. He will be out in half that due to the sentence cuts here, meanwhile he will be preaching his message of hatred and gaining new recruits while he is in jail. Life time in a maximum security prison, in an isolation cell is the bare minimum he should have received."

Certainly, Indonesian and particularly US authorities have been trying to get the firebrand cleric behind bars for a long time and keep him there, only to be thwarted by the courts. Bashir has continued to insist that Jemaat-i-Islamiyah doesn’t exist and was invented by the US Central Intelligence Agency to put him behind bars.

Involved in radical clerical causes since at least 1972, when he demanded that Indonesia’s national philosophy of Pancasila, or tolerance for all religious faiths, be scrapped in favor of shariah law, Bashir was charged 10 years ago with a variety of offenses relating to 2000 bombings of Christian churches that killed 18 people. At that time the governments of Singapore, Australia, Japan, the Philippines and the United States wrote to the United Nations in 2002 to request that Jemaat-i-Islamiyah be placed on the Security Council’s terrorism list, making it subject to sanctions including a global freeze on the organization’s assets, a travel ban and an arms embargo.

At that time, Bashir was found not guilty of treason but was convicted of immigration violations and sentenced to three years in prison. However, his time behind bars was cut to 20 months. He was arrested again in 2004 and charged with involvement in a bomb attack on the Jakarta Marriott Hotel which took another 14 lives. In the same indictment, Bashir was charged with inciting the 2002 bombing of Bali night clubs that killed 202 people, many of them foreign tourists.

He was found guilty in 2005 of conspiracy in the Bali attacks but escaped punishment for the Marriott bombing. Shortly afterwards, however, his jail term was cut by four and a half months. He was released in 2006, having served a bit over two years in prison. He continued to claim Bali bombs were only intended to injure people and not kill them, and that the American CIA had replaced them with stronger weapons.

In 2006, his conviction was overturned outright by the Indonesian Supreme Court, stirring outrage in the US State Department, which had named him an international terrorist. In February, in advance of Bashir’s current trial, the State Department issued a warning to US citizens to "exercise prudence and continue to take active, personal responsibility for their security. We strongly suggest that monitor news reports, follow the instructions of Indonesian authorities and avoid demonstrations."

Bashir was finally arrested again in December 2010 on charges of inciting others to commit terrorism through an Islamist training camp he was operating in the remote, jungle-covered province of Aceh, a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism. The camp was closed down in a violent military operation. Authorities have so far killed or arrested 120 suspects linked to the group, who last year were reported to be seeking to assassinate President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who was publicly unnerved at the report. Prosecutors presented a list of witnesses including members of the Jemaah Ansharuf Tauhid, another group he had founded, who testified against him.

"Abu Bakar Bashir is convicted of the second charge which is having recruited and encouraged people to commit acts of terrorism and is sentenced to 15 years in prison," Judge Swantoro told the court as Bashir’s supporters outside the building shouted "'Allahu Akbar' ('Allah is Great') and said that God would "avenge this injustice." The government put thousands of police and soldiers on duty in anticipation of violence. However, no incidents have been reported.

Bashir himself told the court that he opposed the sentence because it had been delivered by a court and laws "that are made by infidels, not based on sharia. It is haram (forbidden) for me to accept the ruling." Bashir said.