- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 22, 2003

A jail in Jakarta

The message from suspected terrorist Abu Bakar Bashir on the front page of Monday’s paper was dramatic: “Muslim countries [that] have close ties or support the U.S. government … will be threatened by a Muslim militant attack.”

The threat was prophetic in that the actual interview took place just days before a string of suicide bombings in Istanbul killed at least 55 persons and injured hundreds.

But at least as remarkable, from our point of view, was the fact that reporter Sharon Behn got in at all to interview the jailed Indonesian cleric.

Prosecutors failed at his trial last year to prove Bashir is the guiding force behind the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah, blamed for the October 2002 bombing in Bali, Indonesia, among other atrocities. But they did secure a treason conviction, sending the cleric to Jakarta’s Salemba Prison for a four-year term.

Mrs. Behn had begun working on the interview six weeks previously in Honolulu, where she met an Indonesian reporter while on her way to Southeast Asia for a much broader story on terrorism still to be published.

That reporter put Mrs. Behn in touch with yet another reporter in Jakarta, who was in touch with Islamists there and prepared to earn some extra income working as a “fixer.”

By the time Mrs. Behn reached Jakarta, the fixer had already been in touch with the Majlis Mujahideen, an Islamist group that actively supports the imprisoned Bashir.

Negotiations continued and eventually permission was given for the fixer — but not Mrs. Behn — to come to the jail to interview the cleric. Mrs. Behn provided the fixer with a list of questions and a tape recorder so she would be able to verify what had been said.

It was a good start but still not entirely satisfactory. The situation improved, however, when word came that Mrs. Behn would be allowed into the prison along with a handful of local reporters that evening to observe Bashir leading the nightly prayers breaking the Ramadan fast.

Inside the jail

The prison is in the middle of a crowded and poor section of Jakarta, Mrs. Behn reports, with a high wall, topped by barbed wire. The main entrance consisted of a gray steel gate with a small peep-window.

Mrs. Behn says her fixer had been in constant cell-phone contact with the Majlis Mujahideen for days, right up to the minute they arrived at the prison gate.

“We were allowed in and told to wait, in a small space between the main gate and a second thick wire gate. We were finally ushered in by the Majlis Mujahideen who clearly had cleared everything with the prison guards,” Mrs. Behn says.

“We were led through four more gates to an open-air inner courtyard. There were inmates wandering around; it seemed pretty relaxed.

“In the middle of the inner courtyard was a large caged-in section with loudspeakers, which is where Bashir was leading the prayers. We were shown a back entrance, took off our shoes and sat directly behind Bashir.”

During the prayer service, Mrs. Behn sat next to Bashir on a concrete floor covered with thin green carpeting and prayer mats. The service finished, Bashir sat down and everyone was handed water and dates to break the fast.

At that point, Mrs. Behn confirmed with the cleric that the earlier interview had taken place and asked him several more questions.

Bashir “was very calm, but insistent with his ideas,” says Mrs. Behn. “He was dressed in Muslim dress, a long white tunic and checkered sarong, and white skull cap — much better than the rest of the prisoners, whose clothes were pretty tatty.”

She and the fixer remained at the prison for the evening meal, dining from polystyene containers distributed by the Majlis Mujahideen.

“Prayers were going to continue,” Mrs. Behn says, “so we decided to leave.”

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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