Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - The alleged head of the terrorist movement regarded by some experts as a Southeast Asian extension of al Qaeda has gone on trial under heavy security in Jakarta.
Abu Bakar Bashir, an Indonesian Muslim cleric accused of leading Jemaah Islamiah (JI), faces charges of trying to topple the government through a terror campaign and replace it with an Islamic state.
Prosecutors at a specially prepared district court set up in the capital's Bureau of Meteorology building read out an indictment accusing him of bombing churches, plotting to kill Christian priests and assassinate the then vice-president - now president - Megawati Sukarnoputri and conspiring to bomb U.S. targets in Singapore.
Speaking in a courtroom packed with hundreds of supporters and many of his 80 defense lawyers, the 64-year-old cleric said he did not accept the charges.
Later, while being led out of the courtroom after the 70-minute hearing, he was reported to have repeated: "I don't accept these charges, these are lies from America."
Speaking to reporters after the hearing, the head of Bashir's legal team, Buyung Nasution, called the charges "absurd" and said they were a reflection of the pressure being exerted on Jakarta by the international community, especially the U.S. and Britain.
Indonesian police investigators accuse JI, a network of militants located throughout Southeast Asia, of carrying out this past October's bombings in Bali, which killed more than 200 people, mostly Western tourists and including 88 Australians.
Bashir has not been charged in connection with that attack, although several of those in custody on suspicion of carrying out the Bali blasts are JI members and followers of the cleric.
The bombing of popular nightspots on the resort island dealt a heavy blow to the region's tourism industry and prompted Jakarta to crack down after months of complaints from its neighbors that it was soft on terrorism.
Just hours after Bashir went on trial, Indonesian police announced they had arrested another 18 suspected members of JI in a series of raids in various parts of the country.
At least three of the 18 were implicated in the Bali bombing, they said, and one of the group, a man named as Abu Rusdan, is believed to have taken over leadership after Bashir was arrested a week after the Bali blasts.
National Police Chief Da'i Bachtiar said weapons and explosives had been found, and the new arrests had foiled apparent plans to carry out fresh bombings.
The 25-page indictment accused Bashir of co-founding Jemaah Islamiah in 1993.
Chief prosecutor Hasan Madani told the court Bashir was "the leader and organizer of treason with the intention of overthrowing the government, namely to realize plans to establish an Islamic state of Indonesia."
The document said Bashir "disseminated a teaching on jihad as the noblest and highest deed, through waging war against any party that obstructs the upholding of the words of Allah, which means war in its literal sense."
He had given his blessing to a plan to carry out attacks, including an orchestrated campaign of bombings at 38 churches across Indonesia on Christmas Eve 2000, which killed 19 people.
Hasan said the bombings were designed to shake the government and encourage Indonesian Muslims to wage jihad
Bashir was also accused of approving plans to bomb U.S. interests in Singapore.
In Dec. 2001 and again in Sept. 2002, Singapore police arrested more than 30 men suspected of conspiring to bomb targets including the U.S. and other Western embassies, a U.S. warship docked in the port in late 2001, a bar thought to be frequented by American servicemen and Singapore's defense ministry.
Singapore's government said the arrests had derailed the plans and blown open a regional network of Islamic terrorism stretching from Indonesia to the Philippines to Thailand.
The Bashir indictment named other leaders in the JI conspiracy as Hambali, Imam Samudra, Mukhlas, Abdullah Sungkar and Zulkarnaen.
Hambali, also a Muslim cleric, is believed to have been a key "link-man" between JI and al Qaeda leaders. He is wanted in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, and his whereabouts are unknown.
Samudra and Mukhlas are among 30 suspects awaiting trial for the Bali bombings, while Zulkarnaen is at large and wanted in connection with that attack.
Sungkar, who allegedly co-founded JI with Bashir, died in 1999.
If convicted, Bashir could be jailed for life.
The trial resumes on April 30.
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