Indonesia Cleric Denies Terror Ties

A Muslim cleric accused of heading the terror group blamed for the Bali bombings proclaimed his innocence as his trial opened Thursday, and said the charges were the work of President Bush and "his slave" — Australian Prime Minister John Howard.

Abu Bakar Bashir (search) is charged with heading the Al Qaeda-linked group Jemaah Islamiyah (search) and with involvement in two attacks — the Bali nightclub bombings and a blast at the J.W. Marriott Hotel in Jakarta last year.

The United States and Australia also accuse the 66-year-old cleric of being a key Southeast Asian terror leader.

"I am innocent. The charges are baseless," a relaxed-looking Bashir told reporters before the trial began. "Everybody knows, even school children, that there is pressure (for a trial) from George Bush and his slave John Howard."

"All those people who do not agree with the interests of George Bush are called terrorists," Bashir said.

The trial is expected to last five months and is considered an early test of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's (search) resolve to fight terrorism. Even though the country has arrested scores of militants, some critics still see Indonesia as a weak link in the war on terror.

It was the second time Bashir has faced terror charges in two years. He was acquitted last year of heading Jemaah Islamiyah.

Prosecutors say they now have new evidence and new witnesses, but the indictment read Thursday failed to directly link Bashir to the ringleaders of either the Bali or the Marriott attacks.

The trial was held in a large auditorium in the Agriculture Ministry rather than in a courtroom because of the expected high number of observers.

About 100 of Bashir's supporters, including women in head-to-toe-dresses, men in white prayer caps and young children, turned out for the first day.

"Liars! You're all stupid prosecutors," jeered Jamal Aldin, who wore a vest embroidered with the word "Al Qaeda." "You're American lackeys!" he shouted.

Before the Bali bombings, which killed 202 people — 88 of them Australians, — Bashir was chiefly known for his campaign to replace Indonesia's secular government with one based on Islam, and his vocal criticism of U.S. policies toward Muslim countries. Indonesia is the most populous Muslim nation.

Bashir was not required to make a plea in the hearing, but he urged the judges and prosecutors to be wary of the influence of the United States and Australia, which he called "enemies of God."

The trial was adjourned until next Thursday, when attorneys for Bashir will present their initial objections to the indictment.

Bashir has little active support in Indonesia. But some mainstream clerics and government officials sympathize with him and say he was a victim of foreign intervention.

The primary charge against Bashir under Indonesia's anti-terror law accuses him of planning the bombing of the Marriott, which killed 12 people, and — as head of Jemaah Islamiyah — inspiring his followers to carry out the attack.

Prosecutor Salman Maryadi said that in 2000, Bashir relayed an edict from Al Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden to Jemaah Islamiyah members that "permitted the waging of war against, and the killing of, Americans and their allies."

A lesser charge under the criminal code — which carries a maximum sentence of life in jail — accuses Bashir of conspiring in the Bali bombings and of hiding information about the attacks.

If convicted in the Marriott attack, Bashir could face the death penalty.

Charges under the anti-terror law could not be brought against Bashir in the Bali bombings because Indonesia's highest court ruled the statute could not be applied retroactively. The law was passed soon after the Bali attacks.

Bashir has been in prison since shortly after the Bali bombings.