Bashir verdict : Jakarta caught in a bind

NEWS ANALYSIS

It has to appease Muslim domestic audience and crack down on extremists.

THE verdict in Islamic preacher Abu Bakar Bashir’s trial yesterday again proves that when it comes to fighting terrorism, Indonesia finds it hard to go for the jugular.

The 66-year-old cleric’s sentence for his involvement in the Bali bombings which killed 202 people was more like a slap on the wrist.

For taking part in that ‘evil conspiracy’, he was given a mere 2 1/2-year jail term. He could be out by the end of next year, having already served 10 months.

The verdict was seen as a litmus test of the new government’s determination to combat terrorism. But it has left little doubt that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono – like his predecessor Megawati Sukarnoputri – continues to tread carefully in dealing with Islamic extremists.

Since being sworn into power last October, the retired general and his supporters have pledged a crackdown on militancy: They promised better intelligence, tougher laws, nabbing terrorist fugitives in 100 days, and throwing someone like Bashir behind bars indefinitely.

For all the bluster this administration has shown, it is caught in a fundamental dilemma – appeasing its domestic audience, which is largely Muslim, and meeting international demands.

From the start, this was a difficult, if not impossible, case for the prosecutors. It was fundamentally weak.

Prosecutors struggled to prove that Bashir, by virtue of his leadership of the Jemaah Islamiah (JI) terrorist network, was involved in the October 2002 Bali bombings and another attack on the Marriott hotel in Jakarta in August 2003. But, during the five-month trial, only one witness testified that Bashir headed JI.

The prosecution was forced to drop the main charge, which could carry the death penalty, that the cleric and his supporters planned the bombings. Instead, they sought a lesser sentence – arguing that he had failed, as JI head, to prevent members from carrying out terror attacks.

In their indictment, prosecutors said that as JI leader, he visited one of its training camps in the Philippines in 2000 and allegedly relayed a ‘ruling from Osama bin Laden which permitted attacks and killings of Americans and their allies’.

But even this failed to get them the eight-year jail term they were pushing for Bashir.

Legal technicalities aside, this was a case where political considerations loomed large. Going by recent Indonesian history, politics and the judiciary are intertwined, especially in sensitive cases.

Former attorney-general Marzuki Darusman noted: ‘There will always be this fine line between politics and the legitimate sense of justice which will have to be factored into the ruling.

‘The international community might think otherwise, but for a lot of Indonesians, an Islamic cleric going to jail is really a big deal.’

At the core of it all is the fundamental difference in perceptions between Indonesia and the rest of the world.

There is also little consensus on how to deal with the threat of terrorism.

Why, for example, has JI continued to survive in Indonesia, even after carrying out three of the bloodiest attacks in the country’s history? Though Jakarta was among the 47 governments worldwide that supported the United Nations’ blacklisting of JI, the group is still far from being proscribed in Indonesia.

The reason is simple.

The term JI means Islamic community. Any move to ban the network would hurt the sentiments of many Muslims – about 200 million of whom reside in Indonesia – what more sending an influential cleric to jail.

When the white-robed Bashir stepped out of the courtroom yesterday, he was smiling broadly. It seemed as if he was hardly surprised by the outcome.

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