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Militant Cleric Is Hospitalized in Indonesia

Suspected terrorist was to face questioning today. He had earlier praised Bin Laden.

October 19, 2002|Times Staff Writer

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- A militant Islamic leader who was scheduled to answer police questions today about a series of church bombings delivered a sermon Friday, prayed for the good health of Osama bin Laden and held a news conference. Then he checked into a hospital complaining of exhaustion.

Abu Bakar Bashir, 64, a Muslim cleric who advocates converting the entire world to Islam, has become a symbol of Indonesia's inability to combat terrorism, especially after a car bombing on the island of Bali that killed more than 180 people last Saturday.

It was unclear how police would deal with his failure to appear for questioning today.

Early today, meanwhile, President Megawati Sukarnoputri signed two emergency decrees that will strengthen the country's anti-terrorism laws and allow for the detention of suspected terrorists for up to six months without trial. The measures also will allow convicted terrorists to be sentenced to death.

Human rights activists fear that the power to detain suspects will be abused by security forces fighting separatist rebels in the regions of Aceh and Papua. But advocates note that the decrees can be overridden by parliament and are valid for only a year unless lawmakers act to adopt them.

"As friends of Indonesia, we have a right to expect some decisive action in the coming days based on the horrors that happened in Bali last weekend," said U.S. Ambassador Ralph Boyce.

Bashir is accused of heading Jemaah Islamiah, a small and disciplined organization blamed by authorities for dozens of bombings in Indonesia and the Philippines that killed more than 40 people in December 2000. Bashir denies that he is the leader of Jemaah Islamiah and that it even exists. He also denies any role in terrorist attacks, including the Bali bombing.

Bashir's attorney said Friday that the cleric had collapsed. But before entering the hospital, the media-savvy Bashir was healthy enough to give a sermon in which he prayed for the safety of Bin Laden. The Al Qaeda leader, he said, "destroyed the interests of America because America has destroyed the Muslims' interests."

Bashir also predicted that he would be arrested, saying, "Even I myself will be captured soon because I am allegedly a terrorist."

He later told the news conference that "some Islamic clerics are to be sacrificed for the sake of foreign countries' political needs."

In the days since the Bali bombing, Indonesia has been under intense pressure from the U.S. and other countries to crack down on terrorism. In the past, the government has been reluctant to act against extremist Muslims for fear of sparking violent protests in the nation with the world's largest Muslim population.

Concerned about the safety of Americans in Indonesia, the U.S. State Department ordered 300 nonemergency staff and family members to leave the country. Only about 100 embassy personnel will remain.

The Australian government warned today that there may be attacks aimed at Westerners in the suburbs of Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, and urged Australians to leave Indonesia.

Acknowledging that it needs international assistance, Indonesia signed an unusual agreement allowing police from seven other countries to help investigate the Bali blast. So far, 95 foreign investigators and police experts have been assigned to the case, most of them from Australia, but also from the U.S., Britain, New Zealand, Japan, Germany and Sweden.

Papua Police Chief Made M. Pastika, who has been assigned to head the investigation, said there were no suspects so far. A total of 67 witnesses have been interviewed, police said.

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