- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 2, 2004

JAKARTA, Indonesia — A jailed Indonesian cleric refused to be freed in exchange for two hostages held in Iraq, claiming that kidnapping and holding fellow Muslims is not permitted in Islam.

Cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, who Washington says is a terror mastermind in Southeast Asia, has been in prison since 2002, accused of heading an al Qaeda-linked group. He was arrested three weeks after the Bali bombings killed 202 persons that year.

In Iraq, an Islamic militant group claiming to have kidnapped two Indonesian women in Iraq had demanded Bashir’s release in exchange for the hostages.

But yesterday, the slender, white-bearded preacher — an admirer of Osama bin Laden — castigated the captors as un-Islamic and said he would not be part of any exchange.

“I cannot justify this kidnapping. I demand that they be freed as Islam does not condone taking hostages of Muslim sisters and brothers,” Bashir said in response to questions by the Associated Press. “If the captors are Muslim, they truly do not understand Islam.”

Bashir’s voice was recorded and a copy of the recording was smuggled out of prison.

The kidnapping report could not be immediately confirmed.

Arab TV station Al Jazeera showed footage Thursday of 10 hostages seized by a militant group calling itself The Islamic Army in Iraq. The hostages included Indonesians Rosidah binti Anan and Rafikan binti Aming. It is unclear when the two Indonesian women were seized. Of the other hostages shown, two were Lebanese, and six Iraqi.

Earlier yesterday, Al Jazeera said it had received a written statement from the group demanding that Bashir be released. The Islamic Army in Iraq has also claimed responsibility for kidnapping two French journalists who disappeared with their Syrian driver on Aug. 20.

Bashir’s attorney, Muhammad Assegaf, also said the cleric rejected the kidnapping. Bashir wants to fight the charges against him in court and refuses to be released in such circumstances, Mr. Assegaf said.

“Even if he is released because of this, he will walk right back into prison,” he said.

Bashir has little active support in the world’s most populous Muslim nation, but some fellow clerics and ordinary Indonesians are sympathetic to the aging cleric’s plight amid allegations that he is a victim of American pressure on Indonesia to crack down on terror.

U.S. Embassy officials could not be reached for comment.

Indonesian police have dropped plans to charge Bashir in the Bali bombings. Prosecutors say they now plan to charge him with heading Jemaah Islamiyah, a regional terror network, and for the bombing last year of the Jakarta JW Marriott hotel, in which 12 persons were killed.

Bashir has repeatedly denied involvement in terrorism and being linked to Jemaah Islamiyah.

Outgoing Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri urged the kidnappers to release the women and allow them to return to their families.

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