After 15 Years at Gitmo, Bali Bombing Suspects to Get Day in Court

Shailaja Neelakantan
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After 15 Years at Gitmo, Bali Bombing Suspects to Get Day in Court Indonesian policemen check bodies of those killed in an overnight explosion at a nightclub in Kuta, on the Indonesian island of Bali, Oct. 13, 2002.

Three suspects in the 2002 Bali bombings, including “the Osama of Southeast Asia,” will finally get their day in court on Monday, 15 years after being incarcerated at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

By most accounts, this will be the first time that members of the media see the trio of detainees – two Malaysians and an Indonesian – since they were sent to the infamous lock-up. One analyst said their trial would only refresh allegations of the abuse and torture at Gitmo and reflect poorly on Washington, especially so soon after the Taliban took over again in Afghanistan.

Still, the proceedings will cast a spotlight back to the 2002-2003 Bali and Jakarta bombings – which left a total of 214 people dead. Because, as the spokesman for the Office of Military Commissions explained, the prosecution will read out terror charges against the three suspects who will be in the courtroom.

“The defendants haven’t been seen in years, except by their lawyers,” spokesman Ron Flesvig told BenarNews, referring to Indonesian national and alleged mastermind of the Bali bombings, Hambali, and the two Malaysians.

At this arraignment hearing, the three accused are supposed to enter a plea – that is, guilty or not guilty – but an accused can defer entering a plea as well, if the judge allows it, he said.

“The accused can also waive their right to hearing the charges, but the prosecution will still read them the charges,” Flesvig said.

The charges include conspiracy – prosecutors allege that the accused conspired with al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and others to commit terrorist attacks across Southeast Asia and elsewhere. Hambali is said to have met Osama in 1996 in Afghanistan, the U.S. says.

Hambali, whose real name is Encep Nurjaman, was arrested in Thailand in August 2003 with Malaysians Mohammad Nazir Lep and Mohd Farik Bin Amin. They were sent to a secret CIA prison network before being moved to the prison at Guantanamo Bay in September 2006.

The Indonesian, who is called “Southeast Asia’s Osama,” faces eight terror charges related to the Bali bombings, while the two Malaysians face nine. The charges do not carry the death penalty.


A tourist sits by a memorial to the lives lost in the 2002 Bali bombings that was built on the site of the destroyed Paddy’s Pub on Legian Street, in Kuta, Bali, Nov. 24, 2008. [Reuters]

Hambali is ‘very smart, creative and charismatic’

The start of this trial of the Bali bombing suspects couldn’t have come at a worse time for Indonesia and Malaysia, according to Zachary Abuza, a Southeast Asian security expert and professor at the National War College in Washington.

The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan may energize militants in Southeast Asia and if Hambali was sent back to Indonesia – depending on how he pleads – Jakarta “does not want that headache,” Abuza said.

Hambali was an operational mastermind for Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a Southeast Asian militant group affiliated with al-Qaeda, the U.S. says. And JI has been seeing a resurgence in Indonesia, Abuza said.

“They are nervous about the growth of JI – when you put the operations chief of JI back in the country that is something that will motivate the [militant] community,” Abuza told BenarNews.

“The idea of another person who stood up and was treated horrifically by the Americans is a potential windfall for militants. He [Hambali] is a poster child for perseverance in fighting the great infidel,” he said, referring to the treatment of detainees at Gitmo.

Nasir Abbas, a former JI member in Indonesia, agrees with Abuza.

Hambali is “a very smart, creative and charismatic person, so people are easily influenced by him,” Nasir, who now works with police in deradicalization efforts, told BenarNews.

“He has managed to survive in Guantanamo all this time. … As you know, it’s not easy being a prisoner at Guantanamo. It is a credit point for him in the eyes of the jihadists.”

Nasir said that he knew Hambali when both were training at the military academy in Afghanistan. The U.S. says Hambali fought against Soviet forces in Afghanistan as well in 1986-1987.

hamb 307.jpg

Encep Nurjaman, also known as Hambali, is seen in this undated photo provided by the Federal Public Defenders Office, at the U.S. base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. [Federal Public Defender's Office via AP]

US case against accused a ‘nightmare’

Indonesian officials had indicated in 2016 that if Hambali were to be released, they would be reluctant to accept his repatriation for fear that his return could spark a revival among domestic terror cells.

It appears they still feel the same way.

When BenarNews asked about the prospects for Hambali’s trial, Teuku Faizasyah, the spokesman for Indonesia’s foreign ministry, claimed the suspect was not Indonesian.

As for Malaysia, they “have been bracing for this” moment, Abuza said.

“The 2 Malaysians [in Gitmo] remain true believers and are very committed … they are really hardcore,” said Abuza, citing information he got from Malaysian officials who traveled to Gitmo and met the accused.

“Malaysia has been watching this and assumes the Americans will do something.”

Malaysia’s counterterror police chief, Normah Ishak, reiterated what she said back in January: that the trial would give the accused an opportunity to defend themselves.

When asked whether the two Malaysians should come back home, she did not answer “yes” or “no.”

All she told BenarNews was that “as Malaysians, they have the right to return home.”

Abuza said he was aghast when a court date was first mentioned in January.

“I was sure that a plea bargain had been reached…. how will America come out of this looking good?” he said.

According to the analyst, who is a regular contributor to BenarNews, the case against the three is a “nightmare” from a legal perspective. Any information that came from interrogating the accused is dubious, he said, because of the Gitmo torture allegations.

“Which is why I was so convinced there would be some sort of agreement where Hambali pleads guilty to some charges and is returned to Indonesia, perhaps with a sentence of time served.”

Tria Dianti in Jakarta, and Muzliza Mustafa and Noah Lee in Kuala Lumpur, contributed to this report.


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