Islamic Cleric's Sentence Cut in Jakarta

An Indonesian court has quietly cut the jail term from 15 years to nine of Abu Bakar Bashir, the murderous cleric who was convicted in June of running a jihadi terrorist camp from which his acolytes were said to be preparing a Mumbai-style massacre of westerners in Jakarta.

The reduced sentence is being regarded as a blow to Indonesia’s anti-terrorism efforts, which in recent years have rolled up a string of jihadi bombers and their accomplices. One terrorism expert told local media the news of the decision could cause other jihadis behind bars to cease cooperating with police because they aren’t being given the same kind of judicial breaks that Bashir has received.

The decision appears to have been handed down a week ago by a high court without explanation. Indonesian prosecutors say they are still in the dark over the ruling. Bashir’s lawyers said they would seek a full acquittal from the Indonesian Supreme Court.

“We haven’t received a copy of the High Court verdict so we still don’t know the reasons for the judges to sentence the defendant to nine years,” prosecutor Andi M. Taufik tod reporters in Jakarta on Thursday.

The decision cutting the sentence was reported Wednesday by the Agence-France Press news agency. The decision has been met with dismay by prosecutors and western diplomats, who have long sought to get Bashir behind bars and keep him there.. 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, the violent organization that he co-founded, be placed on the Security Council’s terrorism list, making the organization subject to sanctions including a global freeze on the organization’s assets, a travel ban and an arms embargo.

In a depressing statement on the Indonesian court system, the 73-year-old Bashir has repeatedly been sentenced to prison terms for a variety of charges. However, he has been freed on appeal or had his sentence cut markedly each time. He has repeatedly denied he advocated terrorism, continuing to insist that Jemaat-i-Islamiyah doesn’t exist and was invented by the US Central Intelligence Agency to put him behind bars.

In 2003, Bashir was given three years in prison for lesser charges because authorities were unable to prove he was behind a series of bombings of Christian churches on Christmas Eve of 2000, but was released for good behavior after serving only 20 months. He was believed to have been at the center of planning the bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta in 2002, but authorities were unable to prove the charge in court.

In 2005, he was convicted of conspiracy in the 2002 bombings of Bali nightclubs in which 202 people died, most of them western tourists, and was given 30 months in prison, but was released early and ultimately freed in 2006 when his conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court.

He was given the 15-year sentence earlier this year after being convicted of establishing a training camp in Aceh province where allegedly jihadis were preparing to commit the same kinds of mass murders that Pakistani terrorists committed in Mumbai in 2009. That sentence was greeted with anger in Jakarta by critics who said Bashir should have been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

It was felt that the 15 year sentence would keep him behind bars for good. However, given his advanced age although even at the time of the sentencing, some critics in Jakarta were predicting that ultimately he would be freed.

Western officials say Bashir has been 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,

Noor Huda Ismail, a terrorism expert and former Bashir acolyte, told reporters that Wednesday’s announcement highlights the weakness of the country’s judicial system and the government’s lack of commitment to ending terrorism.

“This is the third time he has taken advantage of the justice system’s weakness,” he said. “The government is always saying that Bashir is dangerous and so on, yet this is never supported by efforts to gather intelligence on his activities, so what’s the point?”

Bashir’s lawyer Mohammad Assegaf, however, told AFP that he was confident his client will eventually be released from prison. “We’re very optimistic that the Supreme Court will find him not guilty from all terrorism charges. It has happened before,” Assegaf said

Achmad Michdan, one of Bashir’s lawyers, said his team was still not pleased with the decision. They had been expecting the initial conviction to be overturned, he said. “We will keep appealing. We are convinced that he’s not guilty, that he must be freed,” he said.

“Keep in mind that he’s been charged with terrorism in the past and those charges never stuck. So we still hope that the courts will eventually issue the fair and just verdict, which is to acquit him of all charges.”