JAKARTA, Indonesia — The Indonesian Muslim cleric known as spiritual leader of the militants who carried out the deadly 2002 Bali bombings was sentenced Thursday to 15 years in prison for his support of a terror training camp uncovered last year.
Abu Bakar Bashir’s conviction for incitement of terrorism followed two unsuccessful attempts by prosecutors over the past eight years to link him to terror activities, including a conviction that was later overturned in the Bali attacks that killed 202 people.
The relatively stern sentence for Bashir, now 72, shows Indonesia’s continuing resolve to tackle its deadly extremist movement. The verdict was announced at a Jakarta courthouse amid tight security, with nearly 3,200 police and soldiers patrolling the surrounding area.
Bashir, who denies involvement in terrorism, rejected the ruling, and his lawyer said it would be appealed. “This verdict ignores Sharia law and is based on the infidel law, so it’s forbidden for me to accept it,” Bashir said in the courtroom.
Hundreds of Bashir’s supporters outside the court, some carrying placards saying “Free Abu Bakar Bashir,” reacted to the ruling with shock. Many shouted “God is Great” and others wept. Their leaders urged them to be calm. The crowd dispersed peacefully.
The aging cleric has been a potent symbol for Indonesia’s radical Islamists and, even if not operationally involved in terrorist attacks, is believed by experts to provide crucial ideological sanction for violent extremism.
Prosecutors said Bashir provided key support for a jihadi training camp discovered in early 2010 in westernmost Aceh province that brought together men from almost every known Indonesian extremist group. Militants there allegedly intended to carry out attacks on foreigners and assassinations of moderate Muslim leaders such as Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
Bashir was found guilty of inciting terrorism in connection with the jungle camp. But he was not convicted of a charge of funding terrorist activities, with the panel of judges saying there was not enough evidence to prove that Bashir knew that money he raised was used to purchase guns for the training camp.
Arrested militants testified that Bashir watched a video of the Aceh military training and received written reports assuring him that funds he had raised were being used for the struggle to build an Islamic state.
Bashir denied involvement in the camp but repeatedly defended it as legal under Islam. He told reporters before the verdict that the trial was an attempt by the U.S. and Australia “to eliminate me from Indonesia.”
Jemaah Islamiyah, the radical group co-founded by Bashir, thrust Indonesia into the front lines of the battle against terrorism with its bombings on the tourist island of Bali that killed 202 people, many of them Australians and Americans.
Since then, the government’s counterterrorism campaign has had notable successes, including convictions of dozens of Jemaah Islamiyah operatives in the Bali blasts. Three were executed.
Key radicals also have been killed in shootouts, hundreds of foot soldiers arrested, and the capacity of groups like Jemaah Islamiyah to strike at government and Western targets within Indonesia has been disrupted.
The sentence is “an indication of how strong the Indonesian government’s commitment continues to be in terms of prosecuting terrorism in open trials and through effective law enforcement,” said Sidney Jones, an expert on Southeast Asian terrorism at the International Crisis Group.
“But it doesn’t have a direct impact on the strength or weakness of the terrorist threat. Most of the people we see active now are operating in small groups without direction from a single leader like Bashir,” she said.
Australia welcomed the verdict, with Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd saying it will bring “some measure of justice” to the families of victims of terrorism, and that “full credit” goes to Indonesian authorities for pursuing the case.
Authorities raided the Aceh camp in February of last year, and arrested more than 120 suspected terrorist in the ensuing months.
Some experts say the camp’s organizers envisaged it as a vehicle for radicalizing the Acehnese people and as the nucleus of a future Islamic state.
In his summary of the trial, presiding judge Herry Swantoro said militants arrested in the raids had testified that they learned to use weapons, read maps and other aspects of military training at the camp.
Prosecutors had said Bashir raised about 1.03 billion Indonesian rupiah ($120,800), which was used to buy guns, ammunition and equipment for jihadist training.
Bashir spent previous stints in detention. He was arrested almost immediately after the Bali bombings, but prosecutors were unable to prove a string of terrorism-related allegations and reduced his four-year prison sentence to 18 months for immigration violations.
Soon after his release, he was re-arrested and sentenced to 2 1/2 years, this time for inciting the Bali blasts, a charge that was overturned on appeal. He was freed in 2006.
Brian Deegan, whose 21-year-old son Josh was among the 88 Australians killed in the Bali bombings, welcomed the sentence.
Deegan, a lawyer in the southern Australian city of Adelaide, said victims and their families would be satisfied with Bashir’s harsher sentence this time.
“It gives a degree of satisfaction that the courts are treating him more appropriately than they did with respect to the Bali tragedy,” Deegan said.