Solo (Indonesia), Aug. 10 (Reuters): In a message sent from his jail cell, the Indonesian cleric believed to lead the militant Jemaah Islamiah group urged Muslims today to adhere to their faith without fear of being labelled “terrorists”.
The fiery address from Abu Bakar Bashir came as officials at a school he set up confirmed that a man identified by police as the suicide bomber who triggered last week’s huge blast at Jakarta’s JW Marriott Hotel was one of their pupils.
The speech also comes just two days before Jakarta prosecutors will sum up their case against the frail cleric, who is on trial for treason, and make their demand for sentencing. The maximum penalty he faces is a life term. Bashir, who denies the existence of the militant Muslim group blamed for last year’s deadly Bali bombings and the Marriott attack, sent word to 3,000 believers gathered in a stadium in this city in central Java island for a congress of the Mujahideen Council of Indonesia, or MMI.
“Do not be afraid of being labelled as trying to overthrow (the government) or as terrorists when you are carrying out Islamic Shariat,” Bashir said in the speech read out at an inaugural prayer meeting by Irfan Awwas, MMI executive chairman. Bashir is spiritual leader of the MMI and is believed to play a similar role in the shadowy JI, seen as the Southeast Asian arm of Osama bin Laden’s al Qaida network. His words were interrupted by cries of “Allahu Akbar (God is Greatest),” from the congregation. Solo is the heart of Bashir’s movement and where he runs the Islamic school that was attended by some of the accused Bali bombers.
School officials said another of the pupils was Asnar Latin Sani, identified as the suicide bomber who drove a car packed with explosives and fuel up to the lobby of the US-run Marriott Hotel last Tuesday and blew it up. Asnar, 28, graduated in 1994, they said.
The death toll from that attack rose to 11 today when a severely burned taxi driver died of wounds sustained in the attack, officials said. Bashir was taken in for questioning by police within days of last October’s bombings of two Bali nightclubs that killed 202 people, mostly foreign tourists, and his trial on charges of trying to topple the government began in late April.
The congress of a group seen by many security experts as the public face of Jemaah Islamiah is held every three years and will elect a new emir, or spiritual leader. Bashir could be re-elected, officials of the group said.