JAKARTA, Indonesia >> Indonesia’s best-known radical Islamic cleric denied charges Thursday he helped set up a new terrorist cell and training camp that was preparing a series of high-profile assassinations and attacks on Western hotels and embassies.
Abu Bakar Bashir told judges at the South Jakarta District Court that he was a victim of a U.S. conspiracy and that all charges against him were fabricated.
The 72-year-old imam, who has twice escaped terrorism-related convictions, faces a maximum penalty of death if found guilty.
Hundreds of supporters waited at the tightly guarded court for the co-founder of the al-Qaida-linked network Jemaah Islamiyah, which is blamed for a string of deadly suicide bombings in Indonesia, including the 2002 Bali bombings.
Some shouted “God is Great!” as he pulled up in a police van, smiling broadly and waving.
When told they would not be allowed to enter the courtroom to hear him respond to the charges, supporters of the white-bearded, bespectacled cleric rushed the gates but heavily armed riot police and soldiers quickly forced them back.
Prosecutors say Bashir’s helped set up, fund and arm a new terrorist cell uncovered a year ago in Aceh province that allegedly planning attacks in the capital modeled after those carried out in India’s financial center of Mumbai in 2008, when 10 gunmen mowed down more than 160 people.
The plot allegedly included the assassinations of prominent, moderate leaders like President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, considered by radical Islamists as a lackey of the West because he has overseen a security crackdown that netted hundreds of militants.
Prosecutors say his goal was to carve out an Islamist state in the secular nation of 237 million people.
“My arrest was an order from foreign countries, because the U.S. and Australia do not want to see me free,” said Bashir, wearing a white skull cap and a flowing robe.
“The police want to make sure I stay in jail. They’d like to kill me, if they could,” he said.
He called the country’s moderate leaders and its security forces “infidels.”
“They should be imposing Islamic law,” he said. “That’s it … no bargaining, no arguing.”
Indonesia was thrust into the front lines of the battle against terrorism in 2002, when al-Qaida-linked nightclub bombings on the resort island of Bali killed 202 people, many of them Australian tourists.
There have been several attacks on Western targets since then, but all have been far less deadly. The most recent was two years ago.
It’s not the first time Bashir, seen by many experts as a driving force behind the country’s small but increasingly vocal hard-line fringe, has faced terror charges or time behind bars.
He was arrested almost immediately after the Bali bombings, but prosecutors were unable to prove a string of terror-related allegations and reduced his four-year prison sentence to 18 months for immigration violations.
Soon after his release, he was rearrested and sentenced to 2 1/2 years, this time for inciting the nightclub blasts.
After he was freed in 2006, he started touring the country, making impassioned speeches at rallies and mosques calling for the creation of an Islamic state and condemning foreigners.