JAKARTA, Indonesia – Indonesia's most famous firebrand Islamic cleric went on trial Monday for allegedly forming a terrorist cell to plot high-profile assassinations and attacks on Western hotels and embassies — charges that carry a maximum penalty of death.
Abu Bakar Bashir has twice escaped terrorism-related convictions in the past, but prosecutors insisted that this time the charges in their nearly 100-page indictment will stick.
Indonesia, a secular nation of 237 million with more Muslims than any other in the world, has made strides in fighting terrorism following a string of suicide bombings that have killed more than 260 people in the past decade.
But it still faces pockets of radicalized Islamists and a small but increasingly vocal hard-line fringe has rattled nerves in recent days with new, violent attacks on minorities.
Bashir — co-founder of the al-Qaida-linked network Jemaah Islamiyah, blamed for many of the country's deadliest attacks — arrived at the tightly guarded South Jakarta District Court in an armored personnel carrier.
Wearing his traditional white skull cap and red-and-white checkered scarf, he waved and smiled broadly at supporters who shouted "Allah Akbar!" or "God is great!"
The 72-year-old imam is charged with helping set up, fund, arm and mobilize foot soldiers for a new terrorist cell uncovered last year in westernmost Aceh province as part of efforts to carve out an Islamic state.
The cell, which was allegedly planning Mumbai-style gun attacks on foreigners and the assassination of prominent figures like President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, also was blamed for commando-styled robberies on banks last year.
"The aim was to spread panic and to divide the people and the ruling government, thus paving the way for a takeover," said prosecutor Muhammad Taufik, who struggled to be heard through chants of "Lies! Lies!" from Bashir's supporters.
The cleric, meanwhile, denied wrongdoing as he has repeatedly in the past. He claims he is the victim of a U.S. conspiracy.
"These charges against me are fabricated," Bashir told reporters before entering the courtroom. "All I ever wanted to do was defend Islam."
He later told the judge "I don't even understand the prosecutors' charges ... please explain them to me!"
The courthouse was guarded by 2,000 police, worried about mob violence.
Inside, it was packed with men wearing white Islamic caps and the women fully shrouded in black veils, an unfamiliar site in this mostly moderate country. They shouted every time Bashir's name was mentioned.
Indonesia is often praised for its pluralism and tolerance.
Experts say the country's terrorism threat has dropped sharply in recent years, thanks to a much-praised regional security crackdown has seen hundreds of militants killed or captured and convicted.
But while Jemaah Islamiyah has been severely weakened, new groups like Al Qaida-in-Aceh, as the western terror cell was known, continue to pop up.
There has also been an escalation in religious violence.
On Feb. 6, hard-liners were captured on video beating to death three members of the Ahmadiyah — a minority Muslim sect — with sticks and machetes. Days later, a mob set two churches ablaze to protest a Christian's blasphemy sentence, which they saw as too lenient.
This is the third time Bashir, known for his fiery sermons that some say fuel the flames of intolerance, is on trial for terrorism-related charges.
So far he's only been convicted of lesser charges, like violating immigration laws, for which he spent 26 months in jail. But prosecutors say this time they have plenty of evidence.
Taufik said Bashir told followers in July 2009 that "nonbelievers" — including officials who did not support the creation of an Islamic state — should be killed and their property seized.
"Before waging jihad, we must first occupy a territory, albeit small, and gain full control of it," the cleric is alleged to have said.
Several months later, he allegedly met with the late bomb-maker Dulmatin to discuss the creation of Al Qaida-in-Aceh for which he provided $140,000.
"The defendant supported illegal military training and provided funds to buy weapons, ammunition and explosives," the prosecutor said.
Bashir's lawyers dismissed the accusation as "absurd," arguing that prosecutors had based their case "on assumptions instead of facts."
They will officially respond to the charges next week, when the trial resumes.