The 3000 police and six balaclava-clad snipers at the South Jakarta District Courtroom last Thursday were a clear sign of the threat Abu Bakar Bashir poses to Indonesia.
The country’s justice system finally clinched the radical cleric and sentenced him to 15 years in jail, this time for funding and planning a militant camp in Aceh. In February authorities closed down the camp, where men were training allegedly to assassinate the president and other officials, and carry out Mumbai-style suicide attacks on Western hotels and embassies.
Bashir, who was the spiritual leader of Jemaah Islamiah, the regional chapter of Al Qaeda, has twice evaded conviction on terrorism charges and has long denied any involvement in terrorist acts in Indonesia. He served only 18 months of his four year sentence for masterminding the 2002 Bali bombings, which killed 202 people, including 88 Australians. He now leads the legally recognised Jema’ah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT), blamed for a string of recent attacks in Indonesia.
Bashir’s conviction is undoubtedly a victory for Indonesia’s fight against terrorism but it is just the beginning of a long process. His sentence does not reflect the gravity of his charges, and his legal team, which has won sentence reductions for Bashir before, will appeal the sentence and could win a release for Bashir in eight years.
Inciting others to commit acts of terrorism in Indonesia is punishable by death, and supporting the use of violence to inflict harm carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
The prosecutors had sought life imprisonment for Bashir, and they rightfully saw the judges’ sentence as a watered down punishment to appease Bashir’s followers — threats that 36 bombs would go off simultaneously if Bashir was found guilty, for example, were not taken lightly.
This is typical of the way Indonesia approaches terrorism. The law becomes malleable and punishment is almost a negotiation.
Even in the media, there are few voices questioning the sentence. Like judges, Indonesian journalists and analysts are blunted by fear of unpredictable jihadists. One anonymous prosecutor told the Jakarta Globe that the judges "had to consider the wider feelings of society."
"It seems they don’t just follow the law book exactly. They make decisions after taking into account all the relevant aspects."
Mardigu Wowiek Prasantyo, who works with the police in interrogating terrorist suspects, said the lighter sentence was seen as being "the best outcome for society".
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono himself has performed these balancing acts many times, most notably with the Islamic Defenders Front. The hardline group has been blamed for a rash of violent attacks in recent years against Christians and followers of the Islamic minority sect Ahmadiyah, including the stabbing of a church leader and the bloody killing of an Ahmadiyah follower, who was filmed being dragged from his home naked and bashed and kicked to death by a mob on the ground.
The president was long silent on the matter, eventually making only feeble obligatory statements about religious tolerance in Indonesia. Some of the perpetrators have also received slap-on-the-wrist punishments.
Yudhoyono is afraid he will appear un-Islamic if he takes a heavy hand with hardliners. In a clear breach of the constitution, Yudhoyono’s government kowtowed to extremists in 2008 by banning Ahmadiyah followers from proselytising their religion. Hardliners had waged a campaign against the sect because they believe that their leader was the last prophet, as opposed to Muhammad.
No one wants to make a fuss over Bashir’s sentence — the government, the court, the media and even human rights groups have welcomed the conviction. A 15-year sentence, if served in full, will likely see the 72-year-old die behind bars anyway. Indonesians are taking what they can get.
What experts and authorities are more focused on is where to put this influential figure. Indonesian experts agree that Bashir should be held in a place where he cannot instruct or influence others, as he has notoriously done in prison before.
During his detention in Cipinang Prison, for example, Bashir met Lutfi Haidaroh, aka Ubaid, who became his fixer and courier to Aceh operatives.
Chief of the National Anti-Terror Agency, Insp. Gen. Ansyaad Mbai, told a seminar on Thursday that Bashir must be kept in isolation. "Even from behind bars, they can still perform acts of terrorism, they can recruit new people," he said.
International Crisis Group analyst Sidney Jones told AFP that officials needed to ensure he did not lead a regular praying session from inside. "He’s got to be treated like a high-risk individual rather than a celebrity. The challenge is to keep him from contact with other inmates who could be affected by his preaching."
While authorities scratch their heads to figure out where to put Bashir — one expert suggested a remote island — a former JI member has claimed that even Bashir can be deradicalised.
"I believe we can still convince him that supporting the government in managing the country is a better idea," Nasir Abbas told the Jakarta Post.
"The problem now is finding the right man to persuade him to support the idea."
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