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Indonesia: Lawyers Argue for Early Release of JI Leader Abu Bakar Bashir

Arie Firdaus and Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata
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Abu Bakar Bashir arrives at District Court in Cilacap, Central Java for a sentence review hearing, Jan. 12, 2016.
Abu Bakar Bashir arrives at District Court in Cilacap, Central Java for a sentence review hearing, Jan. 12, 2016.

Radical Indonesian cleric Abu Bakar Bashir made a rare public appearance at a Central Java Court Tuesday as his legal team argued that his prison sentence for funding a militant training camp be shortened.

Lawyers presented what they said was new evidence that Bashir had raised money for Palestinian victims of violence that had been misused.

“That [receipt] is one of the new pieces of evidence,” Achmad Michdan, a member of Bashir’s legal team, told BenarNews by phone.

The hearing unfolded days after Achmad announced that Bashir had dropped his support for the Islamic State (IS) group.

Bashir – once considered the spiritual head of al-Qaeda’s Southeast Asian affiliate, Jemaah Islamiyah – reportedly pledged allegiance to IS in mid-2014 from Nusakambangan, the prison island where he is serving his sentence.

‘God’s order’

Bashir was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2011 after being convicted of raising some Rp. 350 million (U.S. $25,215 today) for a militant training camp in Aceh.

A defense witness had also testified in 2011 that Bashir’s group, Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT), had donated Rp. 300 million to the medical charity MER-C to build a hospital in Gaza, but lawyers did not produce a receipt at the time.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Bashir claimed again that he did not know about the military training in the Jantho Mountains of Aceh in 2010, but learned about it on television news.

But the frail 77-year-old appeared to undermine his case by defending the training camp in a “fiery tirade” in the courtroom, according to Agence France-Presse.

“The physical and weapons’ training in Aceh were aimed at defending Islam and Muslims in Indonesia and overseas, and were an obligation Muslims must fulfil because it is God’s order,” AFP quoted Bashir as saying.

Hundreds of white-clad supporters crowded the venue, at times shouting “God is Great” according to AFP.

Tuesday’s hearing took place under tight security with a combined police and military force of 1,164 on hand, Cilacap regional police spokesman Adriyanto told BenarNews.

Afterward, Bashir was whisked back to Nusakambangan under armed guard.

The sentence review process, expected to take three or four sessions, is scheduled to resume Jan. 26.

‘Who created IS?’

Bashir withdrew his support for IS after deciding information he was receiving about it could not be trusted, Achmad Michdan told BenarNews on Saturday.

Achmad claimed that he himself had investigated the matter during a trip to Turkey and learned that the armed group was created by western countries.

“All this time, in prison, what kind of information could he get about IS? I myself went to Turkey, studied about IS, met with scholars and activists in Syria and Turkey; even they have questions about IS. I told Bashir about this,” Achmad told BenarNews Saturday.

“If someone asks about IS, he will answer back, who created IS?” he said of Bashir.

Sri Yunanto, a staff expert at Indonesia’s National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT), questioned whether Bashir had really withdrawn support for IS, since the assertion came from his lawyer.

“That statement needs to come from Bashir himself,” Yunanto told BenarNews.

Even if true, it is not likely to change minds in Indonesia, because most IS sympathizers are not Bashir followers, he said.

In a discussion about IS in Jakarta in December, BNPT head Saud Usman Nasution gave two different figures for the number of Indonesians who have gone to Syria and Iraq. Intelligence data says 800, whereas police have a tally of 384, he said.

“More than 169 have already come home from Turkey. Some did not enter Syria, some did and finally returned to Indonesia because they found conditions there not as good as the propaganda says,” Saud said.

Fifty-three Indonesians have died in the Middle East, among them four suicide bombers, he said.

“We don’t know for sure how many people have gone there,” he admitted.

Officials have not given a figure for how many IS supporters or members have been arrested in the sprawling, decentralized country.

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