Four Uyghur men accused of trying to make contact with a terrorist group in Indonesia all but admitted in court this week that they entered the country illegally.
The men, arrested in Central Sulawesi province last September, stand accused of trying to meet up with Indonesia’s most wanted terrorist, Santoso, but claim they were mere tourists.
Defendant Abdul Basit told the court that the four met in Malaysia after flying there from Turkey.
“We all met when we were sightseeing and introduced ourselves,” said Basit, who was accompanied by two translators at North Jakarta District Court on Wednesday.
The men then hired a guide to take them to Indonesia via motorboat, he said.
“Our trip was arranged. We were accompanied by a guide who kept communicating with Bozoglan. We trusted everything to them, including visa application administration,” he said, referring to co-defendant Ahmet Bozoglan.
They departed from an unnamed seaport in Malaysia but had no clue if it was official, Basit said.
“We did not see any official or immigration counter there. But we just trusted the guide. Then we realized the route seemed illegal,” said Basit.
There was no one else on the boat but the four men and its crew, he said.
They arrived in a city in Indonesia identified by their lawyers as Pekanbaru, the capital of Riau Province on Sumatra island.
They flew to Jakarta, and visited Bogor and Bandung in Java before flying on to Makassar, in Sulawesi.
Shortly thereafter they were arrested by police on their way to Poso, in Central Sulawesi province. It is considered a haven for militants and Santoso’s Eastern Indonesia Mujahideen (MIT) group.
“We have no other intention but vacation,” said Basit.
Turkey or China?
The men have also been charged with carrying fake Turkish passports. Prosecutors assert the defendants are actually from China, and Indonesia has indicated they would be sent there once the trial ended.
The Uyghurs are a Muslim minority within China, and mostly live in the western Xinjiang region. Uyghurs also are spread across Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan,Uzbekistan and Turkey.
Uyghur advocates say China has trumped up allegations of “Uyghur terrorism” to justify repression in Xinjiang province. As many as 700 people are believed to have been killed in political violence in the Xinjiang region from 2013 to 2014, the U.S.-based Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) reported earlier this month.
During cross-examination, prosecutor Nana Riana aggressively questioned the nationality of the men, who could not correctly state the birthdates given on their passports or to police.
“Would you tell me your birthday?” Nana asked defendant Ahmet Mahmud.
“Istanbul, July 9, 1987,” he answered.
“On the police investigation report, you said Jan. 10, 1995 in Turkestan,” she replied.
“What about your birthday?” Nana asked co-defendant Abdullah, alias Altinci Bayram.
“Istanbul, April 20, 1986.”
“It is stated May 10 on the passport. How come someone has different birthdays?” grilled Nana.
Defense: Evidence flimsy
In past court sessions, witnesses stated that a camera seized from the men at the time of their arrest carried photos of foreigners known to have been associated with Santoso.
But none of the evidence or witnesses presented thus far has proven the charges, lead defense lawyer Asludin Hatjani told BenarNews.
“We have not seen any yet. The attorney only has evidence that give indications they were involved with the group, but nothing clearly proved their involvement with the group,” he said.
“They never directly communicate to those people, especially with the language barrier between them. Photos also only showed indications,” Asludin told BenarNews.
The next trial date is set for June 24, he said.
“We are ready for defense,” he said.