Whatever others may say about it, here in Indonesia the trial and subsequent conviction on Thursday of Abu Bakar Ba'asyir to 30 months' imprisonment for partaking in the "evil conspiracy" that culminated in the Oct. 12, 2002, Bali nightclub bombings is likely to remain a topic of heated contention for a long time to come.
On one side of the divide are those who believe in the cleric's guilt, or at least in his role in the Jamaah Islamiyah organization and in his capability to incite violence, while on the other side, his blindly devoted followers and others believe that justice should be meted out impartially and objectively, no matter what -- which, in the absence of convincing proof, they believe the court has done.
Apart from touching on some of the most fundamental, universally recognized principles of justice, Ba'asyir's case thus personifies the precarious position that Indonesia -- as the world most populous Muslim nation -- occupies in the global tug- of-war between the fight against terror and the principle of equality before the law. In the final instance, at stake is the direction in which the nation's efforts at judicial reform and its democracy are headed.
In the meantime, the past few years of police efforts have proven that the aging cleric is not an easy fish to catch. To briefly recall Ba'asyir's embroilment with the law after his return from self-exile in Malaysia after the fall of the New Order regime in 1998:
Police arrested Ba'asyir on Oct. 19, 2002, just a week after the Bali nightclub attacks, for alleged involvement in terrorist activities across the country, including the December 2000 Christmas Eve church bombings and involvement in a plot to assassinate then president Megawati Soekarnoputri.
He was officially detained on Nov.2 of that same year and went on trial in April the following year. Though charged on several counts, including a 1999 plot to assassinate then vice president Megawati, the Central Jakarta District Court only managed to hand him a four-year prison sentence for document fraud and immigration violations. In November 2003, the High Court reduced that sentence to three years, a ruling that the Supreme Court further reduced in March 2004 to 18 months' imprisonment.
Ba'asyir, however, did not savor his newly gained freedom for long. Just moments after his release, police once again arrested the cleric, this time on charges of terrorism. The clashes that resulted left more than 100 Ba'asyir followers injured. On Oct.16, formal charges of masterminding the Bali bombings were made against the 67-year-old cleric. The rest, as they say, is history.
Opinions, meanwhile, remain sharply divided, not only here at home, but also abroad. The Australian foreign minister, Alexander Downer, for example, was quick to express his disappointment over what he considered to be a too lenient verdict. A spokesman of the U.S. embassy in Jakarta, Max Kwak, conveyed similar sentiments, though it must be noted that both also expressed their respect for the independence of the Indonesian judiciary and the conviction.
The same divide seems to exist to some extent among Indonesians, with those who consider Thursday's court verdict lenient, fearing that it might encourage more acts of violence in the future, pitted against those who call the verdict unfair and unfounded. After all, the court's reliance on a sworn testimony based on an overheard conversation, appears weak to say the least.
Nevertheless, the fact that Ba'asyir and his lawyers could so easily have evaded the more serious charges of terrorism provides plenty of room for thought, particularly regarding the country's judiciary. Eight charges were laid out by the prosecutors against the cleric. The bench regarded just one -- the subsidiary charge of involvement in an evil conspiracy to cause an explosion that caused death and endangered the lives of others -- as proven, and even that claim is suspect.
The Abu Bakar Ba'asyir court saga, of course, is not over at this point. The aging cleric has made it clear that he will appeal the verdict.
In the meantime, the Indonesian government, its national legislature and its judiciary had better work hard toward establishing a more effective and more elucidated means of ensuring national security, all in full adherence to the law and the Constitution. The nation's security must be protected, but without resorting to the authoritarianism of the past.