Thu, 03 Jul 2003

Testimony against Ba'asyir: The turning of the tide?

The Straits Times, Asia News Network, Singapore

The plodding treason trial in Jakarta of Abu Bakar Ba'asyir has shifted gears. Testimony given by three Jamaah Islamiyah (JI) detainees by videolink from their security confines in Singapore has cut through the fog, to judge from reaction by important Indonesian Muslim organizations.

The impact will be felt widely, not least in Singapore by a Malay community unfairly burdened by distortions of their faith by mavericks. Across Southeast Asia, the outcome of the trial would either aid or hamper the efforts of governments to contain the spread of Islam-based militant activism that can spawn serial terrorism. Ba'asyir is allegedly the JI network's ideological head, as important as Hambali, its operational head who is missing.

The most telling evidence came from Faiz Abu Bakar Bafana, who testified that Ba'asyir had ordered an attempt on the life of Megawati Soekarnoputri, when she was vice-president, and approved the Christmas Eve 2000 bombings of churches across Indonesia. Nineteen persons died in those attacks, followed by another Jakarta bomb incident in 2001 ascribed to Ba'asyir.

Together with the Bali bombing last year, for which Ba'asyir's unseen hand is suspected, the resultant deterioration in urban security and the inter-religious strife in Indonesia have destabilized the whole of Southeast Asia. If the region's security status is to improve, Indonesia must clean house first.

For this reason, the changing climate of opinion -- from permissiveness and skepticism about prosecutorial fairness, to open questioning of Ba'asyir's religious bona fides and motives -- could be a breakthrough. The Islamic groupings Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah, traditionally powerful in their support of bulwarks against a discredited police-military establishment, have denounced political violence and reaffirmed the primacy of the law.

Flowing from the detainees' appearance, NU pointedly said Ba'asyir should not be spared a full accounting if the evidence of criminality was strong. He denies all charges. As messianic Islamic firebrands such as Ba'asyir draw moral and numerical support from these organizations' millions of supporters, their eroding credibility will present the government with a powerful new tool with which to counter known and suspected troublemakers. It is a long and difficult task. It should use the bounty wisely.

Faiz and the other two detainees, Hashim Abas and Jaafar Mistooki, spoke variously of how wrong it was to turn on non- Muslims in organized violence, and of their sense of devastation at being forsaken when they were caught.

They had named Ba'asyir as their mentor, their ideological inspiration. Said Faiz: 'None of us upheld Islam by attacking innocent people.' Their remorse could sound scripted to doubters, and the Singapore internal security authorities will have to endure fairly standard whisperings that the witnesses had been coached, even coerced.

They have said they spoke freely. Singaporean Malays will have found the underlying message of being led astray to be relevant. They could not but be struck by the remorse expressed. Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, the minister handling Muslim affairs, has apprised the community of the need to absorb the import of the confessions, which they pretty much were. His reminder to Muslims against being manipulated has to be amplified manifold by religious leaders and heads of the community. Malay/Muslims have nothing to apologize for, and every reason to expect that the sanctity of their faith will prevail.