The Bush administration may have been disappointed at the light sentence handed down to Muslim cleric and suspected Indonesian terrorist leader Abu Bakar Bashir on Tuesday in Jakarta, but to anyone familiar with Indonesia the verdict came as little surprise.
Although Bashir, who is alleged to be the head of what many say is Al-Qaeda’s Indonesian affiliate, Jemaah Islamiyah (J.I.), could have been jailed for life, he got off with a four-year sentence. He was acquitted of the main charges against him, which were that he ordered a string of terror bombings in Indonesia and plotted to assassinate the president of Indonesia. Bashir was ultimately convicted of forgery and immigration violations, and of aiding and abetting treason (apparently because he aims at the establishment of an Islamic state in Indonesia).
Prosecutors, who may appeal the verdict, failed to prove that Bashir is J.I.’s leader. The group is suspected of partnering with Al Qaeda in last year’s disco bombing in Bali.
David Isenberg writes in Asia Times that a recent investigation by the International Crisis Group found that despite the efforts of Indonesian authorities, J.I. is firmly rooted in Southeast Asia. The report finds that the J.I. network is bound together not only by ideology also through a network of marriages.
The ruling clearly testifies to the difficulty of fighting an international war on terror in Indonesia, which doesn’t have the cleanest justice system in the world. Greg Barton points out in Wednesday’s Sydney Morning Herald that few “big fish,” like Bashir, have ever been handed long-term sentences in Indonesia. He explains that Suharto’s old-boy network still retains influence:
“An enduring legacy of the Suharto regime is that after decades of fluid loyalties — and of being played off one against the other — no individual or group in the elite wants to enter a decisive action against another who has the resources to generate support equal to, or greater than, their own. All-out confrontation is avoided at all costs.
Another legacy of the Suharto era is a deeply dysfunctional legal system in which honesty, integrity and professionalism are conspicuously rare.”
Barton claims that whatever the failings of the legal system, the evidence presented against Bashir was in any case weak. Getting the goods on Bashir would require the Indonesian government to deal with J.I. systematically, which would require disbanding the Indonesian Mujahideen Council, taking action against its religious boarding school, and thoroughly investigating the school’s alumni — 16 of whom have already been arrested for their alleged work in J.I. attacks. But it seems with an upcoming election and public sentiment against a crackdown, the government is likely to go easy.
Indonesian officials aren’t saying much about Bashir’s sentence, instead questioning the United States’ commitment to fighting terrorism. American officials have recently denied the Indonesian government access to J.I.’s Riduan Isamuddin, aka Hambali, whom the US captured in Thailand last month. Analysts say the ruling on Bashir will make it less likely the U.S. will hand over Hambali (for whom it has questions of its own).
And it seems Indonesia’s terrorism problem is only going to worsen. Matthew Moore speculates in the Herald that the ruling undermines the Indonesian government’s case. that home-grown terrorists are a real threat to Indonesia.
“In the aftershock of Tuesday’s decision, they all seem to be sitting tight, waiting to see how the public responds before they take a position.
In its own war on terror since the Bali bombings, Indonesia has been largely successful in silencing the conspiracy theorists who’ve long claimed, with no evidence, that the United States and Israel were behind the bombings in their campaign to discredit Muslims.
Silencing such views has only come about with the widely publicised and transparent prosecutions of the Bali bombers.
With the failure of the prosecution of their alleged leader, Bashir, the conspiracy theorists have been given new ammunition to argue that terrorism is not an Indonesian problem.”
Without public support for dismantling J.I., the Indonesian government is likely to lay off the group. If Moore is right, that process is already well underway.