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Indonesia Will Use Decree to Go After Terrorists

October 18, 2002|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, accused by neighboring countries of heading a regional terrorist group, was named by Indonesian police Thursday as a suspect in a series of church bombings and ordered to appear for questioning.

The move appears to be the first step in a crackdown on suspected terrorists in Indonesia following a weekend car bombing on the resort island of Bali that killed more than 180 people, mostly young foreigners.

President Megawati Sukarnoputri, who has been under pressure from the United States for months to take action against alleged terrorists, said Thursday that she will issue an emergency decree enabling police to hold terror suspects without trial.

The order could trigger the immediate arrest of Islamic militants, including Bashir, who have been linked to terrorist activities by authorities in other countries but are living freely in Indonesia.

Megawati is expected to sign the decree today, and Bashir has been ordered to report to police on Saturday. He denies any role in terrorist acts.

"To combat terrorism, the government needs a legal base," the president told reporters. "So the government is going to issue a [decree] soon."

The presidential order will be similar to anti-terror legislation that has been stalled for months in parliament. Under the constitution, the president can bypass legislators in times of emergency and enact laws by decree.

The action has the support of parliamentary leaders, including Speaker Akbar Tanjung, who appeared with Megawati on Thursday to announce the decision.

"We think the situation we are facing at the moment can be considered as an emergency," he told reporters after an hourlong meeting with the president.

While the decree has not been made public, a draft of the legislation would allow the detention of suspects for up to a year without trial. Justice Minister Yusril Ihza Mahendra told reporters that the maximum penalty under the decree would be death.

Human rights activists are concerned that the decree could be abused by the military in places where the government is fighting separatist guerrillas, such as Aceh and Papua regions.

One of the main targets is Bashir, 64, who is accused by Singapore and Malaysia of heading Jemaah Islamiah, a regional group Singaporean authorities say plotted to blow up the U.S. Embassy and six other targets in their nation last year.

Authorities say some members of the group have ties to Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terror network and trained at Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. More than 100 alleged members have been arrested in Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines but none in Indonesia.

Bashir, a charismatic preacher who praises Bin Laden as an Islamic warrior and says the use of violence is justified to defend Islam, served more than three years in prison and spent 14 years in exile in Malaysia for opposing the regime of former Indonesian strongman Suharto.

Until now, the government has been reluctant to arrest Bashir for fear of antagonizing Islamic militants, a small but vocal minority in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country.

To provide a legal foundation for Bashir's arrest, the government sent investigators to interview Omar Faruq, an Iraqi who was quietly arrested by Indonesian intelligence agents in June and turned over to American authorities.

U.S. officials say Faruq confessed he was a senior leader of Al Qaeda in Indonesia and masterminded the simultaneous church bombings on Christmas Eve in 2000 that killed 19 people. He also said he was involved in two plots to assassinate Megawati.

Information provided by Faruq about planned Al Qaeda bombings prompted authorities to close several embassies in Southeast Asia in September, but officials say he did not tip off investigators about plans to blow up nightclubs in Bali.

Brig. Gen. Saleh Saaf, national police spokesman, said Thursday that Faruq repeated his confession for Indonesian investigators, including naming Bashir as the leader of Jemaah Islamiah.

Faruq has said the Christmas Eve bombings were planned with Bashir's "knowledge, approval and logistical support." He also said Bashir was involved in the bombing of a mosque and a shopping mall.

Bashir denies ever meeting Faruq.

Saaf declined to discuss who else Faruq had named but told reporters to watch what police did next. "We want to show the world and the Indonesian people that we are serious in dealing with terrorists," he said.

Indonesia has been criticized by neighboring countries and the U.S. for not moving decisively against terrorists.

Only after the Bali bombing did Indonesian officials publicly acknowledge that Al Qaeda is active in their nation. Officials continue to maintain that Jemaah Islamiah does not exist in Indonesia.

President Bush and Megawati talked by phone for 20 minutes Thursday, agreeing that the Bali attack required a "swift and decisive response."

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