Sat, 05 Mar 2005

RI defends Ba'asyir verdict, points finger at U.S.

The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

As foreign countries protested the 30-month prison sentence given to Abu Bakar Ba'asyir, Indonesia said on Friday the verdict should be respected and that the U.S. could have strengthened the prosecution against the cleric by giving Jakarta access to other terror suspects.

"The (verdict) was quite appropriate because it was clearly a matter fully within (Indonesia's) judicial process." Minister of Foreign Affairs spokesman Marty Natalegawa said.

"The Indonesia government, from the beginning, has always adopted a position of respecting the (independent) judicial process."

Marty said it was important that the United States had refused to allow Indonesian law enforcers to directly question top terror suspect Hambali, whose information might have reinforced the prosecution against Ba'asyir.

Hambali, an alleged senior operative of both Jamaah Islamiyah (JI) and Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda, is being held by U.S. authorities at a secret location following his arrest in Thailand in August 2003.

"Our view is that it is better for them to invest in this legal process by, for example, giving the Indonesian government access to Hambali," Marty was quoted by AFP as saying.

The South Jakarta District Court on Thursday sentenced Ba'asyir for his involvement in an "evil conspiracy" that led to the Bali bombings but cleared him of more serious charges of planning terrorist attacks.

The governments and politicians in the United States, Australia and New Zealand said they were disappointed with the verdict, which they believed was too light.

"We believe these results are not commensurate with Ba'asyir's culpability," U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said, adding that prosecutors had produced "substantial evidence which we found convincing" against the cleric.

Australia urged Indonesian prosecutors to appeal the term.

Ba'asyir's lenient sentence stirred a political row in New Zealand on Friday, with the government rejecting a demand to recall its ambassador from Jakarta in protest.

Although Foreign Minister Phil Goff, who is overseas, reportedly called the sentence "unfortunate" and said it would leave many people disappointed, acting foreign minister Marian Hobbs issued a statement saying: "New Zealand has welcomed the commitment of the present Indonesian government to bring to justice those responsible for terrorist acts."

"We will continue to encourage Indonesia in this respect," she was quoted by DPA as saying.

The demand to recall Ambassador Chris Elder came from Don Brash, leader of the conservative opposition National Party.

However, at home many Indonesians see Ba'asyir as a victim of U.S. pressure in the war on terror and remain uncertain of his guilt.

"I have said that I am totally different with Ba'asyir in the way we understand religion, but this is a legal issue," Muhammadiyah chairman Ahmad Syafii Maarif told Reuters.

"I hope that the appeal will find Ba'asyir innocent and his name will be rehabilitated."

Indonesian experts meanwhile expressed concern that the verdict would not have deterrent effect on terrorists.

"There are advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that the court did finally convict Ba'asyir. The disadvantage is that the verdict is too lenient, which would not create deterrent effect on other terrorists," said Insp. Gen. (ret.) Ansjaad Mbai of the antiterror desk at the chief security minister's office.

However, Begi Hersutanto of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) said that whatever the verdict, it would not affect the growing phenomenon of terrorism.

Whatever the laws were or the penalties, they wouldn't stop people putting bombs in minivans or buses, Begi said.

Ansjaad urged the government to improve Antiterror Law No. 15/2003, arguing that it was the "softest" law against terrorism in the world.