Indonesian Cleric Gets 15 Years on Terror Charge

The Indonesian Muslim cleric known as spiritual leader of the militants who carried out the deadly 2002 Bali bombings was sentenced Thursday to 15 years in prison for his role in supporting a militant camp uncovered last year.

Abu Bakar Bashir's conviction for incitement of terrorism followed two unsuccessful attempts by prosecutors over the past eight years to link him to terror activities, including a conviction that was later overturned in the Bali attacks that killed 202 people. The lengthy sentence against Bashir, now 72, suggests Indonesia's continuing resolve to tackle its deadly extremist movement.

The verdict was announced amid high security at a Jakarta court where hundreds of Bashir supporters gathered, some with placards saying "Free Abu Bakar Bashir." Nearly 3,200 police and soldiers secured the area after bomb threats spread through Twitter and text messages.

Bashir rejected the ruling, and his lawyer said it would be appealed.

"This verdict ignores Sharia law and is based on the infidel law, so it's forbidden for me to accept it," Bashir said.

The aging cleric has been a potent symbol for Indonesia's radical Islamists and, even if not operationally involved in terrorist attacks, is believed by experts to provide crucial ideological sanction for violent extremism.

Prosecutors said Bashir provided crucial support for a jihadi training camp discovered in early 2010 in westernmost Aceh province that brought together men from almost every known Indonesian extremist group. Militants there allegedly intended to carry out attacks on foreigners and assassinations of moderate Muslim leaders such as Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Bashir was found guilty of inciting terrorism in connection with the jungle camp. But he was acquitted of a charge of funding terrorist activities, with the panel of judges saying there was not enough evidence to prove that Bashir knew that money he raised was used to purchase guns for the training camp.

Arrested militants testified during the trial that Bashir watched a video of the Aceh military training and received written reports meant to assure him that all the funds he had raised were being used for the struggle to build an Islamic state.

Bashir denied involvement in the camp but repeatedly defended it as legal under Islam. He told reporters before the verdict that the trial was an attempt by the U.S. and Australia "to eliminate me from Indonesia."

Jemaah Islamiyah, the radical group co-founded by Bashir, thrust Indonesia into the front lines of the battle against terrorism with its 2002 bombings on the tourist island of Bali that killed 202 people, many of them Australians and Americans.

Since then, the government's counterterrorism campaign has had notable successes. Key radicals have been killed, hundreds of foot soldiers arrested, and the capacity of violent extremist groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah to strike at government and Western targets within Indonesia has been disrupted.

But prisons have become a failing in the overall game plan with some released militants rejoining their networks and committing new acts of terror.

Ordinary prisoners, meanwhile, are at risk of being radicalized by imprisoned extremists.

The sentence is "an indication of how strong the Indonesian government's commitment continues to be in terms of prosecuting terrorism in open trials and through effective law enforcement," said Sidney Jones, an expert on Southeast Asian terrorism at the International Crisis Group, a NGO that researches conflict.

"But it doesn't have a direct impact on the strength or weakness of the terrorist threat. Most of the people we see active now are operating in small groups without direction from a single leader like Bashir," she said.

The Aceh camp was raided in February of last year, resulting in arrests of more than 120 suspected terrorists over several months.

Some experts say the camp's organizers envisaged it as a vehicle for radicalizing the Acehnese people and as the nucleus of a future Islamic state.

Despite the camp's failure, it may have provided militants with lessons that will help future attempts to bring extremist groups together under one umbrella.

In his summary of the trial, presiding judge Herry Swantoro said militants arrested in the raids had testified that they learned to use weapons, read maps and other aspects of military training at the camp.

Prosecutors had said Bashir raised about 1.03 billion Indonesian rupiah ($120,800), which was used to buy guns, ammunition and equipment for jihadist training.

Bashir has spent previous stints in detention. He was arrested almost immediately after the Bali bombings, but prosecutors were unable to prove a string of terrorism-related allegations and reduced his four-year prison sentence to 18 months for immigration violations.

Soon after his release, he was re-arrested and sentenced to 2 1/2 years, this time for inciting the Bali blasts, a charge that was overturned on appeal. He was freed in 2006.