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Jailed Indonesian cleric Bashir frail but defiant

Frail and reed-thin, militant Indonesian cleric Abu Bakar Bashir has long cultivated the image of an avuncular Muslim preacher persecuted by his own government.
/ Source: Reuters

Frail and reed-thin, militant Indonesian cleric Abu Bakar Bashir has long cultivated the image of an avuncular Muslim preacher persecuted by his own government.

It is an image at odds with the picture painted by the authorities in Jakarta and regional and western intelligence agencies, who say Bashir, jailed for 15 years on terrorism charges on Thursday, has been deeply involved in extremist violence for many years.

Indonesian police have long accused him of being the spiritual head of Jemaah Islamiah, the regional militant group blamed for the 2002 Bali bombings that killed more than 200 people.

Bashir, 72, wearing his trademark white Muslim cap and shawl and wire-rimmed glasses, was typically defiant after Thursday's sentence was handed down in the south Jakarta court, refusing to accept a verdict he said was "against Islam" and based on "evil law."

The cleric had used his final defense speech during his trial last month to make a fiery denouncement of the "infidel" United States, telling the court: "Because my preaching is considered dangerous, and with this lifetime in jail, the dream of the pharaoh U.S. and its allies will come true."

Supporters sold copies of the 55-minute speech for 20,000 rupiah ($2.30) outside the court, where Bashir was tried on charges of funding a militant training camp in a remote part of Aceh province, on Sumatra island.

The conviction was the third attempt to jail the white-bearded preacher on terrorism charges -- two previous trials had seen him briefly imprisoned for lesser offences.


Bashir co-founded an austere Islamic boarding school called al-Mukmin in the central Java city of Solo in the early 1970s, which the International Crisis Group think-tank has put at the top of Jemaah Islamiah's "Ivy League" of schools where members send their children.

"He will continue to be the ideological leader of the hard-liners," said Keith Loveard of security risks firm Concord Consulting, after Thursday's effective life sentence.

Given Bashir has led prayers in jail and had access to media while awaiting the verdict, he may be able to continue to communicate with other militants from a prison system notorious for corruption and where big names can arrange soft treatment.

He has repeatedly denied any links to terrorism, although he has admitted being an admirer of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, killed in a U.S. raid in Pakistan last month, and has called the Bali bombers misguided but praiseworthy fighters.

In 2003, a court ruled that charges of leadership of Jemaah Islamiah, brought against Bashir following the Bali bombings, and links to earlier violence, were unproven. He instead served 18 months for immigration violations.

In 2005, he was found guilty of being part of an "evil conspiracy" to carry out the Bali bombings, but cleared of more serious charges of ordering the Bali attack and masterminding the 2003 bombing of the JW Marriott Hotel in Jakarta.

He was sentenced to 30 months in jail, which was later cut by just over four months.

Born in Jombang, East Java, in 1938, Bashir, who is married with three children, was first jailed in 1979 under former autocrat Suharto for agitating to set up an Islamic state.

In 1985, he escaped and fled to Malaysia, where for 14 years he spread his influence among Muslim militants from Southeast Asia, while selling honey on the side to make ends meet.

Bashir, who like most of Indonesia's most radical Muslim clerics is of Yemeni descent, returned to Indonesia in 1999 after Suharto resigned.

In 2002, Singapore, in a formal submission to the United Nations requesting that Jemaah Islamiah be added to a list of organisations associated with al Qaeda, said Bashir had assumed the leadership of the group from another Indonesian cleric, Abdullah Sungkar, after the latter died in 1999.

A report from the International Crisis Group the same year said that Bashir was considered insufficiently radical by some Jemaah Islamiah hardliners, and some analysts believe Bashir and his closest followers opposed the Bali bombings for tactical reasons.