Sentence delivers wrong message

THE BASHIR VERDICT

Bashir’s light jail term jeopardises Jakarta’s credibility in terror fight and offers extremists hope.

NEWS ANALYSIS

Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Bashir did not have to shed any tears in court when his verdict was read out yesterday.

His four-year jail sentence – with a prospect of an appeal – was a far cry from the 15 years Indonesian prosecutors had pressed for.

If the treason case was seen as a litmus test or a barometer in Indonesia’s fight against terrorism, the verdict left little doubt that the Megawati administration and the courts continue to tread the ground carefully in dealing with radical Islam.

Jakarta is sending mixed signals once again, taking one step forward and two steps back in confronting a politically sensitive issue.

The lengthy and contradictory judgment of the Indonesian court yesterday reflected this acute dilemma.

It charged that Bashir was guilty of taking part in a plan to overthrow the government but said that he was not complicit in leading the plot.

Chief judge Muhammad Saleh also said there was no proof that he was leader of the Jemaah Islamiah (JI) terror network.

He said that the only witness to implicate Bashir in such a plot had been Faiz Abu Bakar Bafana, a JI suspect detained in Singapore.

There was never any doubt that the 65-year-old cleric would serve time behind bars. The issue was for how long.

During the past year, the public tide had slowly turned against him, making it difficult to regain his moral high ground.

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

Jakarta has been riding the tide of changing public sentiment.

One reason the authorities were prepared to act with greater decisiveness against him was a calculated decision that an eventual conviction would not generate the backlash that it had threatened to initially.

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

But the J.W. Marriott Hotel bombing and persistent intelligence reports of further terrorist strikes in the capital might have deterred the authorities from imposing a tougher sentence.

Obviously, security concerns were a significant factor in the lighter-than-expected sentence but it dents the government’s credibility in combating the terrorist scourge.

Indonesian culture is predisposed to compromises. The government is prepared to let a small fish like Amrozi, who took part in the Bali bombing, face the firing squad.

Indeed, others involved in the attacks on two nightclubs in Bali last October are likely to face death.

Bashir’s light sentence is an expedient short-term solution but its political ramifications are stark for Indonesia and the region.

It sends a clear message to his supporters that, in the absence of a decisive stance against extremism, there is still hope for them to carry out acts of terrorism in the name of Islam.

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