Indonesian Police Move Against Cleric, President Gains Anti-Terrorism Support

Published October 17, 2002

| Associated Press

Indonesian authorities moved against the spiritual leader of an Islamic militant group Thursday, and President Megawati Sukarnoputri won critical parliamentary support for emergency anti-terrorism laws following the Bali bombing that killed at least 183 people.

The government's suspicions were against Abu Bakar Bashir of the Jemaah Islamiyah group, sources told The Associated Press.

In announcing that Bashir would be summoned for questioning Saturday, the Indonesian authorities appeared to be responding to intense international pressure to crack down on terrorism and go after Jemaah Islamiyah.

Bashir, who lives openly in the town of Solo, about 250 miles southeast of Jakarta, could not be reached for comment. But he has repeatedly denied any involvement in the church bombings or the Bali attack.

As authorities struggled to identify the dead five days after the Bali attack, bombers struck at two department stores in neighboring Philippines, killing six people and injuring 144, the military said.

The Philippines' military said Thursday's blasts in the southern Christian city of Zamboanga could be the work of Abu Sayyaf militants. Philippine officials have said Abu Sayyaf may be linked to Usama bin Laden's Al Qaeda group, which allegedly has ties with Jemaah Islamiyah, the group viewed by the United States and Australia as a prime suspect in the Bali bombing.

The Christmas Eve church bombings in Jakarta and nine other cities and towns killed 19 people and injured dozens.

Aritonang said police decided to declare Bashir a suspect in the church bombings after Indonesian investigators returned from questioning Omar Al-Faruq, a suspected Al Qaeda operative in Southeast Asia who was arrested in Indonesia in June and handed over to U.S. authorities.

Earlier, Security Minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said he did not rule out a move against Bashir over the Bali attack, "but we are still unable to say which organization is behind this."

Speaking late Thursday on El-Shinta radio, Bashir's lawyer, Mohamad Mahendradatta, confirmed without elaboration that Bashir is being accused of responsibility in the church attacks and that he could face the death penalty.

Neighboring Singapore and Malaysia have jailed dozens of suspected Jemaah Islamiyah operatives implicated in plots against Western targets there.

However, Indonesia has long feared that taking action against Bashir could provoke a backlash by Islamic extremists. This week, ministers for the first time -- albeit circumspectly -- said Al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah exist in the world's most populous Muslim country. But they tiptoed around the issue of moving against them or Bashir.

In another possible indication that the multinational investigation is picking up pace, Malaysian authorities said Azahari Husin, a fugitive bomb-making expert, was probably involved in the attack.

The 45-year-old Malaysian Muslim trained in Afghanistan was among a group of seven militants who fled to Indonesia in January, when Malaysia and Singapore arrested scores of suspects allegedly involved in a plot to bomb the U.S. and other Western embassies in Singapore.

"Our intelligence shows that Azahari is likely to have had a hand about the bombing" in Bali, the official told AP. He spoke on condition of anonymity and offered no direct evidence.

An Indonesian cleric who was long the right-hand man of Bashir may also have been involved in the attack, said the official.

Riduan Isamudin, who goes by the name Hambali, is accused of arranging a meeting of two of the Sept. 11 hijackers and Al Qaeda operatives in Malaysia in January 2000, as well as organizing the Singapore bombing plot. His whereabouts are unknown.

In Bali, police said the probe was focusing on a group of eight people -- seven Indonesians and one foreigner -- who are being "intensively questioned."

"We hope that we will be able to establish their possible link with the culprits," spokesman Lt. Col. Yatim Suyatmo said. None was identified.

Hours after police named Bashir as a suspect in the 2000 attacks, Speaker Akbar Tandjung met with Megawati in Jakarta, the capital, and told her that "Parliament gives its full support to the government to issue the anti-terrorism government regulation."

The decree would expand the government's power to fight terrorism but could also lead to a confrontation with Islamic extremists.

It is based on legislation that has been stalled for months by parliamentary bickering and fears it will free the Indonesian military, with its history of human rights abuses, from the constraints imposed after dictator Suharto was toppled in 1998.

Officials said the decree could go into affect as early as Friday.

A draft obtained by AP indicates the decree would relax rules of evidence and allow suspects to be held for three days based on intelligence reports that they had committed -- or threatened to commit -- acts of terrorism. Suspects could be held longer with a judge's permission.

Violators could face the death penalty, the draft said.

Saying it had new information about possible threats in Indonesia, the Australian government urged its citizens to leave the country. Dozens of the Bali victims were Australian.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard flew to Bali to meet with grieving relatives. As relatives and friends of the victims hugged and wept, Howard pledged at an open-air memorial at the Australian consulate to "do everything in our power to bring justice to those responsible for this foul deed."

Howard also said his government had "disturbing new information" about possible threats against Westerners in Indonesia and urged Australia's citizens to leave the country.

A day earlier, Australia and Indonesia formed a joint investigation team.

On the resort island, Thursday marked another day of frustration and sadness.

The list of identified rose only three to 42 and Australian police warned it could take months to identify everyone. Relatives met with Australian officials to complain about the slow pace of the investigation.

"I'm devastated. I'm angry. I'm confused," said Renee Fowler, an Australian who lost her mother. "I don't understand why this had to happen."

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