JAKARTA, Indonesia – The alleged leader of a militant Islamic group was sentenced Thursday to 2 ½ years in prison for conspiracy in the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings (search) that killed 202 people but was cleared of more serious charges. The United States and Australia criticized the sentence.
A five-judge panel cleared Abu Bakar Bashir (search) of allegations that as head of the Al Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah (search) group he planned the 2003 bombing of the J.W. Marriott hotel in Jakarta that killed 12 people and that he incited his followers to launch terrorist attacks.
The 66-year-old preacher could be released from prison by October 2006 with time already served in prison taken into account. He has been in jail since April.
Bashir had faced a maximum penalty of death over the Marriott charge, but most analysts had predicted his punishment would be far less — partly due to a weak case by prosecutors. During the five-month trial, only one witness directly testified that Bashir headed Jemaah Islamiyah, the group blamed in both attacks.
"I'm being oppressed by people from abroad and at home," Bashir said after the verdict, surrounded by hundreds of cheering supporters. "They consider Islamic law to be a shackle and are slaves to immoral behavior. Allah, open their hearts or destroy them."
"Smash America and its lackeys," shouted one supporter, his face covered by a red scarf.
Both sides said they would consider appealing the verdict, with Bashir's lawyers calling the sentence politically motivated. Bashir and his supporters have repeatedly claimed that Jakarta was under pressure from the United States to find him guilty.
The United States and Australia, which lost seven and 88 citizens respectively in the attack on Bali tourist nightclubs, consider Bashir the spiritual leader of Jemaah Islamiyah and were hoping for a lengthy prison term to deter terrorism in the world's most populous Muslim nation.
"We respect the independence and judgment of the Indonesian courts," U.S. Embassy spokesman Max Kwak said. "But given the gravity of the charges on which he was convicted, we are disappointed at the length of the sentence."
"We'd have liked a longer sentence," Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said.
Indonesian Cabinet Secretary Sudi Sulalahi declined to comment on the case.
Intelligence officials say Jemaah Islamiyah has cells across Southeast Asia where it is believed to be seeking a pan-Islamic state. Alleged members jailed without trial in Malaysia are accused of helping two of the Sept. 11 hijackers during a visit to that country in 2000.
U.S. terrorism expert Zachary Abuza said that Bashir supporters would be emboldened that the court dropped the serious charges. He said he'd expected the court to hand down an even lighter sentence.
"They (Bashir's followers) are going to feel vindicated, that prosecutors have to drop many charges against him and indeed dropped demands for a fuller sentence," Abuza said.
The five-judge panel said in its verdict that there was no evidence nor witnesses to prove that Bashir took part in the plot to bomb the Marriott. Bashir was in jail at the time of the attack.
"The perpetrators of Marriott bombings admitted they did that on their own will. ... Therefore the defendant has to be acquitted from primary charges," the judges said.
The conspiracy conviction relates to allegations that Amrozi bin Nurhasyim, who was convicted along with 35 other militants in the nightclub bombings, visited Bashir three months before the attacks to ask for his blessing — something which Bashir allegedly gave.
Amrozi never testified during the trial, which began in November. Judges made their ruling based on a confession he allegedly made to police. Bashir denied the exchange ever occurred.
Bashir was acquitted in a separate trial in 2003 of heading Jemaah Islamiyah. He served an 18-month prison term for minor immigration violations and was arrested on his release from jail. He has been behind bars since shortly after the Bali bombings.
Before that attack, Bashir was chiefly known for his campaign to install an Islamic-based government in Indonesia and his criticism of U.S. policy toward Muslim countries. He has little active support in Indonesia, where hard-line religious interpretations are unpopular.
But some mainstream clerics and government officials sympathize with him, saying he is a victim of foreign meddling.