SE Asian Terror Suspect Removed For Questioning

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:12 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - In a move that sparked angry clashes with radical students, Indonesian police acting under new security regulations have moved a Muslim cleric suspected of terrorism to the capital for questioning.

As Abu Bakar Bashir was escorted from a central Java hospital to a van, scores of supporters - many of them young students at the nearby Islamic boarding school he heads - shouted "Allah is greater" and threw rocks and bottles at police deployed at the scene.

Several policemen were reported to have been hurt in Monday's scuffles, along with several protestors. After police drove Bashir away, appeals by Muslim leaders brought the clashes to an end.

Bashir, 64, had already been under police guard for nine days while receiving treatment for respiratory problems, but it was his removal to Jakarta that most stung his followers, some of whom accused police of kidnapping him.

He was flown to the capital, where he is being held at the National Police Hospital, and is expected to undergo questioning in the days ahead.

Bashir, who heads a body called Indonesian Mujahidin Council, has consistently denied charges that he is also leader of Jemaah Islamiah (JI), a group allegedly linked to al Qaeda and now outlawed as a terrorist organization in the U.S., Australia and Britain.

He has, however, praised al Qaeda leader and suspected Sept. 11 terror attack mastermind, Osama bin Laden.

For much of this year, President Megawati Sukarnoputri's government has been fending off criticism from the U.S. and some of Indonesia's neighbors about its perceived reluctance to pull its weight in the fight against terrorism.

According to analysts, she has been unwilling to take steps that could alienate the country's Muslims and jeopardize her tenuous hold on power.

But after a terrorist bombing on the resort island of Bali on Oct. 12 killed some 190 people, most of them foreign tourists, the international pressure on her was ratcheted up.

Several days after the attack, which Western experts and officials believe JI may have carried out, Megawati finally acted, pushing through security regulations similar to legislation that had long been held up by lawmakers.

Bashir was the first to be detained under the new rules, which allow for terror suspects to be held without charge.

How his supporters and other Indonesian Muslims - the overwhelming majority of whom are described as moderates - react to the arrest in the days ahead will be a key test of the government's commitment to follow through.

Jakarta has not accused Bashir of any involvement in the Bali blasts.

But officials say the confession of a key al Qaeda operative in U.S. custody has implicated the cleric in a series of deadly Dec. 2000 bomb attacks on Indonesian churches, and a plot to assassinate Megawati when she was deputy president.

Bashir has hired several dozen top defense lawyers and, from his hospital bed, has issued statements accusing the U.S. of having ordered his arrest, and vowing to resist "by force" any attempt by police to move him to Jakarta.

"I will refuse, with whatever powers I have [to leave with police]," he told reporters. "If I am locked up, it will be the nation's problem."

That warning echoed another at the weekend by the deputy headmaster of the religious school, Wahyudin, who said if Bashir was "cornered" by police, "grass-roots Muslim society will not accept this."

Although Wahyudin said the school would use only legal means to object to the developments, "we cannot guarantee that other Islamic elements will do the same."

After Bashir was flown to Jakarta, Security Minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono at a press conference called on Indonesians not to "become emotional," adding that Bashir had been taken for questioning, not punishment.

Defense Minister Matori Abdul Djalil also urged Muslim leaders to calm their supporters, saying Bashir would be questioned as an individual, not as a representative of Islam.

"The government has no intention of discrediting any religion, but the questioning of Bashir by the police is part of law enforcement efforts," the official Antara news agency quoted him as saying.

The chairman of the country's second largest Muslim organization, Muhammadiyah, Syafi Ma'arif, voiced doubts about the allegations against Bashir, and said he should not be detained without solid evidence.

But another Muslim leader, former President Abdurrahman Wahid, was quoted as saying Sunday that he believed Bashir was a terrorist, on the strength of U.S. and other foreign intelligence reports.

Speaking to supporters of the country's largest Muslim organization, Nadhlatul Ulama, Wahid urged the government to get tough with Bashir.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow