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Cleric's verdict seen as test for Indonesia

( 2003-09-02 13:49) (Agencies)

Militant Indonesian Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Bashir appealed to his vocal supporters on Tuesday to stay calm before taking his seat in a courtroom to learn whether he would be found guilty of treason.

The panel of five judges allowed Bashir -- who faces a 15-year jail term on charges of trying to overthrow the government through the Southeast Asian Muslim network Jemaah Islamiah -- to make a brief statement before the session began.

"My message is stay calm, let us show our Muslim behavior. If we can't get in, please stay calm," Bashir, speaking into a microphone, told supporters crammed inside and outside the courtroom before taking the defendant's chair.

Scores of supporters inside the courtroom stood and chanted "Allahu Akbar" (God is greatest), as Bashir, clad in white cap and shawl over a black jacket and sarong, entered the courtroom around 10 a.m. (0300 GMT). Outside, more shouted the same thing.

"Believe me, we will win, as long as we uphold God's law," Bashir said. "If there is someone who tries to create disorder, that will be a provocateur, an American provocateur."

The trial is seen as a fresh test of Indonesia's willingness to get tough with militants in the wake of bombings in Bali last October that killed 202 people and at a Jakarta luxury hotel last month that killed 12.


Police took up positions around the central Jakarta building where the trial is being held and readied water cannons in case of trouble.

Authorities say Bashir is the spiritual leader of the Jemaah Islamiah network stretching across Southeast Asia and blamed for a string of bombings in Indonesia and the Philippines and plots to commit violence throughout the region.

Outside the court hundreds of his supporters, some dressed in military fatigues and scarves wrapped around their faces, were waiting to hear if Bashir was found guilty of various charges.

Bashir -- charged with treason linked to church bombings that killed 19 people three years ago and also to an aborted plot to kill President Megawati Sukarnoputri when she was vice president -- says he was set up and has denied the charges or any knowledge of Jemaah Islamiah.

Prosecutors say the aim of his campaign was to overthrow the secular government in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country.

Bashir, who has campaigned openly for the establishment of Islamic law in Indonesia, told the five judges hearing his case the sentencing demand was "devious and cruel because it was prompted by pressure from the infidels, the enemies of Islam."

If the court convicts him and gives him the full 15-year sentence prosecutors have demanded, it could effectively mean a life sentence, for at 65 Bashir is troubled by poor health.

The judges were expected to read a lengthy summation of the trial before delivering their verdict and sentencing on Tuesday.

While Indonesian authorities have been vigorous in their pursuit of Bali bombing suspects -- one of whom has already been sentenced to death -- none had the public profile of Bashir.

"Based on the facts, we can conclude every JI action needs the blessing of the defendant as its emir (chief)," prosecutors said when they asked for the 15-year sentence.

Although Bashir has not directly been implicated in the Bali bombings or the Jakarta hotel blast, authorities have said Jemaah Islamiah is the main suspect in those attacks.

The majority of victims of the Bali bombings were Australian tourists, and on Monday Canberra warned its nationals to avoid central Jakarta in case of trouble should Bashir be convicted.

"The trials of extremists by the Indonesian authorities could prompt a strong reaction from their supporters, including possible demonstrations or acts of terrorism," the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said in a travel advisory.

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