The smiling face of Abu Bakar Bashir plastered on the front pages of newspapers around the world is both infuriating and sickening. The Islamic cleric was buoyant after being given a mere 2-1/2-year prison sentence for conspiracy in the 2002 Bali bombing, which killed 202 persons. The U.S. and Australian governments, not to mention victims and their relatives, have criticized the light sentence. Although the outrage and frustration is understandable, it should not be directed toward the Indonesian government or justice system.
Unfortunately, the evidence against Bashir was so weak, Indonesian prosecutors were fortunate to win a conviction at all.
“We respect the independence and judgment of the Indonesian courts,” said U.S. Embassy spokesman Max Kwak. “But given the gravity of the charges on which he was convicted, we are disappointed at the length of the sentence.” The length of the sentence, however, reflected the evidence provided at the trial.
Bashir is widely believed to be the spiritual leader of the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah, whose members perpetrated the Bali bombings. As alarming as the light sentence is in view of the enormity of the Bali bombing, Indonesia’s prosecution may have a tough time on appeal defending the conviction they have already won. The prosecution thought it had secured the testimony of a string of high-profile witnesses, but when it came time for them to testify in court, witnesses reversed their positions, denying knowledge of any link between Bashir and terrorism. The five-judge panel threw out other more serious charges linked to the Bali bombing and the August 2003 bombing of Jakarta’s Marriott hotel.
U.S. officials should carefully monitor the progress of the Bashir case. If the prosecution fails to make headway with witnesses, the United States should reconsider making two detainees (Indonesian nationals Omar al-Faruq and Riduan Isamuddin) available to Indonesia for questioning.
The United States has a strong national security interest in seeing the Bashir conviction upheld and his sentence significantly stiffened. This interest might be secured simply by lending the Indonesians some technical expertise. If not, though, U.S. officials should seriously consider playing the aces at their disposal.