Arrest me, not clerics, says Indonesian V-P

If terrorists do exist in the country, he would prefer himself to be detained in place of the Muslim leaders, he says.

Vice-President Hamzah Haz has issued a bold challenge to the Indonesian government in yet another move to defy attempts to crack down on Muslim militants in the country: Arrest him in place of religious clerics accused of terrorism.

In comments seeming to attest to the innocence of Laskar Jihad leader Jafaar Umar Thalib and Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, he also said he would be the first man in the country to issue arrest warrants against terrorists if Indonesia harboured any.

He made the comments through an aide, Mr Said Budairy, after meeting the 64-year-old Abu Bakar in Solo, Central Java, on Tuesday.

‘There are no terrorists here,’ Mr Said quoted Mr Hamzah as saying after the one-hour meeting.

‘I guarantee that. If terrorists exist, don’t arrest any Muslim clerics, arrest me.’

The meeting with the cleric, who is suspected by Singapore and Malaysia of heading the Al-Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiah group, came a month after the controversial visit to Jafaar, who has been detained for stirring up violence in the Maluku islands.

In both cases, Mr Hamzah was seen to be courting the Muslim ground with an eye to the 2004 election.

But his supporters brushed aside such suggestions, saying he was ‘genuinely convinced’ that both Jafaar and Abu Bakar were not guilty.

Indeed, Mr Hamzah said the national police chief had made it clear that there was no international terror network in the country.

Mr Rusjdi Hamka, a senior member of the Muslim-based United Development Party, which Mr Hamzah heads, said the Vice-President had indicated many times that it was ‘unethical’ for him to do nothing when ‘good Muslims’ were being targeted.

‘As a good Muslim also, he is standing up for these people and telling the government that the police, military and intelligence agencies must not discriminate against anyone when they carry out their investigations,’ Mr Rusjdi told The Straits Times.

‘He is not undermining the government in any way. In fact, he is making sure by his actions that it does not do anything that could affect its standing in the eyes of the Muslim community.’

The presidential palace continued to watch his moves as resentment grew in President Megawati Sukarnoputri’s Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P) that he was damaging the government’s efforts against extremists.

But they contended that he was also undermining his own political credibility – domestically and internationally.

Said senior PDI-P member Meilono Soewondo: ‘His offer to be arrested is very enticing. I wish we could just do that so that all the problems he is causing will go away …

‘But he should realise that his actions are going to hurt him more in the long run.’

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