Bashir under pressure

As evidence of his role in the Jemaah Islamiah terrorist organisation mounts against him, support has dwindled for jailed cleric Abu Bakar Bashir.

Indonesian cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, once a fiery preacher, was now a forlorn figure in the courtroom. Sitting on a wheelchair and dressed in a traditional white robe, the ailing 64-year-old buried his bearded face in the Quran for all six hours of the eighth session of his treason trial last month.

His coterie of 21 lawyers were no longer by his side. They had boycotted the proceedings to show their opposition to a court ruling that allowed video conferencing.

The silver-haired Bashir displayed no traces of emotion and barely looked up as five 60cm television monitors beamed, live, images of three Jemaah Islamiah detainees in Singapore accusing him of terrorist acts.

The painful scene resumed a week later. Four other suspects from Malaysia damned Bashir in video testimony linking him with deadly church bombings in Indonesia, and other atrocities.

Bashir’s current abject state is a glaring contrast to his proud standing last year.

When he was first hauled up for questioning in by police in early 2002, he held his chin high, thumbed his nose at Indonesian authorities, praised Osama bin Laden and brazenly challenged his ‘American and Jewish enemies’.

His confidence was understandable. He had the backing of politicians such as Vice-President Hamzah Haz and Justice Minister Yusril Mahendra, and that of several Islamic groups in the country.

Brazen and defiant back then, he looks every bit the beaten man now. The possibility that he will spend 15 years in jail increases with each passing day.

Bashir is now a portrait of weakness. He is not only alone in the courtroom; friends and followers who once idolised him now shun him.

Public sentiment has also gradually shifted against the ailing cleric whose teachings of jihad once inspired a generation of followers.

As the evidence against him grows, it has become harder for anyone to accept his pleas of innocence and easier for the authorities to tighten the noose around him.

Before the trial began two months ago, the prosecution had already amassed enough proof of his crimes to indict him.

Confessions from suspects in Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines pointed to him being linked closely to Omar Al Farouq, one of Osama’s top operatives in the region. Al Farouq himself pointed the finger at Bashir during his interrogation.

Prosecutors also had statements from five people who linked him to the bombings of three churches in Batam on Christmas Eve 2000.

The investigations into the Bali attack last October added greater urgency to getting a conviction, given that several of the bombing suspects had spent time in his religious boarding school.

Armed with these facts, the prosecuting lawyers got started, albeit in fits and starts at first.

PROSECUTION’S SLOW START

THE focus of the charges against Bashir – the church bombings, a plot to topple the government and an attempt to assassinate Megawati Sukarnoputri in 2000 when she was vice-president – blurred as they pursued a strategy of trying to link him with the Bali bombers.

The prosecution might have decided to take this U-turn after learning that at least three of the Bali bombing suspects had studied under Bashir at the Al-Mukmin religious boarding school in Solo, Central Java.

One of them, Ali Imron, testified earlier this year at the Bali bombing trial that Bashir was a top JI man. He said the spiritual leader had arranged his trip and provided him with access to a Muslim school at Peshawar, Pakistan, where he studied before entering Afghanistan to conduct ‘jihad’.

Another, Imam Samudra, implicated Bashir as being directly involved in the Oct 12 blasts that killed some 200 people. But he subsequently recanted in court, saying that he made the confession under police torture.

This did not deter the prosecution. It seemed intent to confine itself to a line of investigation and questioning that alternated between Bashir, JI and the Bali attack.

Unfortunately, this approach backfired.

AND THEN THE LOW POINT

FOUR suspects linked to the Bali blasts – including Ali and Imam – later appeared in court to backtrack on their earlier testimonies. Yes, Bashir was JI’s leader, but he had nothing to do with the church bombings or the sordid Bali saga.

It marked the lowest point for the prosecution. Confronted by his rowdy supporters and the defiance of the witnesses, the team appeared to be at a loss on how to fight back.

Bashir himself was the picture of confidence, smiling and waving at the thunderous chants of ‘Allahu Akhbar’ or ‘God is Great’ from his 200 supporters in the tense courtroom.

The prosecution suffered another serious blow a week later. Three witnesses brought in to support accusations that the defendant had falsified government documents – the lightest of four charges levelled against Bashir – refused to back the claim.

A source in the Attorney General’s office told Sunday Review: ‘The first phase of the Bashir trial was demoralising for us. Most of the people that testified did little to help our case. We were at a low point.’

TRIAL SWINGS THE OTHER WAY

WITH the benefit of hindsight, however, the testimonies of two of the witnesses did help the prosecution.

Legal experts believe that by identifying Bashir as leader of JI, the confessions of two militants had an unnerving effect on the cleric and his defence team. All along, they denied the very existence of the terror network.

Up until then, the ultimate outcome of the trial hung, precariously, in the balance. Neither the defence nor the government had the upper hand.

Then the pendulum swung the prosecution’s way. The courts agreed to hear the testimonies of detained JI members in Singapore and Malaysia via video conferencing.

The defence lawyers staged a dramatic walkout after the ruling.

A seasoned diplomat who has been monitoring the court proceedings said: ‘They knew it would be very damaging for Bashir because the police had basically built their case against him from the testimonies of these people. He would be a sitting duck.’

Indeed, the televised testimonies from Singapore and Malaysia proved to be the key turning point. For the first time, it strengthened the prosecution’s hand in a hitherto plodding trial of withdrawn confessions and confusing statements.

The most damning evidence came from Faiz Abu Bakar Bafana. He said Bashir had ordered the killing of Ms Megawati and gave his blessings for the church bombings three years ago.

The 41-year-old Faiz, a key JI member, said that terrorist fugitive Hambali had told him that Bashir was the leader of the terror network. He had met him many times and they once discussed ‘a programme of Sheikh Osama’.

Losing in court of public opinion

Another, Jaafar Mistooki, 42, said he and three other Singaporeans left for military training in Afghanistan in 1991. Bashir, along with the late JI leader Abdullah Sungkar, even accompanied them to Kuala Lumpur’s Subang airport, he said.

He told the judges: ‘I want to hear from my Ustaz of Jemaah that I was so loyal to. Is it true that Ustaz said JI doesn’t exist? Is it true that Ustaz said that he is not leader of the JI? Can he admit that to me now?’

Prodded by the judge to reply, Bashir’s only words were: ‘Nothing. I am not part of this hearing.’

EVEN MORE SOLID

THE prosecution built an even more solid case a week later. Four more JI detainees from Malaysia charged that he was brains behind their network and knew about their terror plans in South-east Asia.

They spoke of how the JI plotted to bomb churches in Indonesia and sent fighters to the Malukus, the southern Philippines and other regional hotspots in pursuit of its goal of setting up an Islamic state in the region.

‘An emir’s approval is always sought,’ said suspected Ahmad Sajuli, when asked if the group’s leader would know about every mission.

Bashir again remained tight-lipped in a courtroom which had also become unusually silent with his lawyers and noisy supporters nowhere in sight.

Outside the courtroom, he condemned the use of witnesses testifying against him from abroad. He said it destroyed his ‘hopes for an objective trial’ and violated his human rights.

DESPERATE MOOD

THE mood in the Bashir camp is changing to one of desperation.

His brother-in-law, Umar Baraja, so open with the media in the past with threats of mass demonstrations and violence, has disappeared from sight.

His lawyers are trying to put up a strong public front, even if they appear to be losing the battle in both the legal court and in the court of public opinion.

His lead attorney, Mr Mahendradatta, told Sunday Review: ‘Everything that has been presented by the prosecution is hearsay. Do you know that in the United States, Abu Bakar Bashir would be a free man because the courts there would throw out such evidence?’

And he claimed: ‘Our chances are getting brighter and brighter.’

The defence has long tried to discredit the case against Bashir as one that is ‘seriously flawed’. They argued that the trial was heavily influenced by government intervention and international pressure, and that foreign figures and the media portrayed their client as a terrorist.

More specifically, they are pursuing a two-pronged strategy.

The first is to put pressure on the court to call as a witness Omar Al-Farouq, a terrorist suspect currently detained by US authorities.

‘He is the source of all accusations against our client,’ Mr Mahendradatta said.

Prosecutor Hasan Madani said he had written to the US ambassador in Indonesia, Mr Ralph Boyce, on July 10 to seek help in taking Al-Farouq to court but had not received a reply. It is unlikely, however, that Bashir and company will get their way, however, given Washington’s reluctance.

They have also tried to change perceptions that Bashir is a militant leader.

Mr Mahendradatta said: ‘Sungkar advocated violence. Bashir is more moderate. Both of the them hold very different ideological positions.’

This, however, did not seem apparent in Bashir’s testimony before the court last week.

Defining the term jihad or ‘holy war’, which he said he learnt from the Quran, he made clear that to him it meant, ‘waging war against infidels who oppress Muslims’.

‘It is an obligation to fight, whenever there is an ability,’ he said.

This hardline statement was at odds with the picture of a patient, wise and peaceful man that was painted by Mr Mahendradatta as well as a member of Bashir’s Indonesian Mujahideen Council (MMI) who testified earlier at the hearing.

Hasyim, 43, a frequent companion of the cleric, said he had never heard him insult anyone or call for violence.

‘What I remember is that he is always advising everyone, MMI members or not, to all be patient in facing this test and not to become emotional,’ he said.

But fiction vs reality has left a big hole in Bashir’s credibility.

Palace aide Rizal Malarangeng noted: ‘All ways lead to Rome. And all ways are leading to Bashir now. He has very little wiggle room left.’

LITTLE CHANCE

BASHIR will find it hard getting out of this rut, for several reasons.

First, the testimonies of JI detainees from Singapore and Malaysia have handed the government a conviction against him on a platter. As the Indonesian saying goes, it is like finding a fallen durian.

The public tide has also slowly turned against him, making it hard for him to regain his moral high ground. The Indonesian media, too, once so sceptical of the charges, now carries screaming headlines of the trial.

The Bali massacre was a crucial turning point in this respect. It shattered the edifice of an ‘untouchable’ Bashir and opened the possibility of Indonesia being a haven for terrorists like him.

For the last few years, Indonesia has appeared headed down the bloody path of Islamic radicalism.

Hundreds of years after the religion took root in Indonesia, Muslims in the country seem to be alternating more pointedly now than ever before between tolerance and militancy.

More than three decades of modernisation in Indonesia has led to a cultural schizophrenia – McDonald’s and the thumping rhythm of discos compete with the drone of the traditional gamelan and Friday prayers at the mosque.

Most Indonesians of the MTV generation may be growing into more devout Muslims, but they do not want to have excessive demands of piety imposed on them in.

The likes of a radical cleric calling for a jihad and creating an Islamic state is not in sync with the prevailing political mood, shaken to the core by Bali and periodic terrorist attacks in the country.

MODERATES RISE

SIGNIFICANTLY, two of the largest Muslim groups in Indonesia – the Nadhlatul Ulama and to a lesser extent the Muhammadiyah – are now taking a much harder line against Bashir.

The moderates are on the rise, at least for now. If anything, the radicals are on the defensive with the cleric’s trial and the break up of at least two militant groups, including the notorious Laskar Jihad.

The third factor is Jakarta’s new found resolve in fighting terrorism. The Bashir trial is a litmus test of their efforts and a barometer of how far the Megawati administration has progressed over the last year.

The government has been riding the tide of changing public sentiments. One reason why the authorities are acting with greater decisiveness against Bashir is the calculated decision that an eventual conviction will not generate the backlash that it threatened to initially.

The ferocity that hundreds of his students displayed before television cameras when he was first arrested seemed to justify fears of an Islamic backlash and nationwide violence.

What has materialised so far, aside from a few threats of reprisals, are calls for reason and fairness in handling his case.

Together with the quiet backing of the Americans, this has only emboldened the government to take an even harder line against terrorism. The intensifying crackdown of against JI members in Indonesia in recent weeks is a clear indication of Jakarta’s intent. Those nabbed may offer even more convincing evidence against Bashir as the trial enters its final phases.

Slowly but surely, the net is closing in on him.

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