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Renowned Indonesian Extremist Leader on Trial for Inciting Violence

One of Indonesia's best known Islamic militants went on trial Thursday. The head of the Laskar Jihad group has been charged with inciting violence in Indonesia's eastern Maluku province, where thousands have died in fighting between Muslims and Christians.

Several supporters of Jafar Umar Thalib shouted at the end of the opening day in his trial. The leader of the extremist group, the Laskar Jihad or the "Holy War force", is charged with inciting his followers to commit violence, and publicly insulting Indonesia's President Megawati Sukarnoputri and Vice President Hamzah Haz. He faces seven years in prison if convicted.

The charges are based on a speech Mr. Thalib made in Maluku's capital Ambon earlier this year. In the speech, he called for Muslims to prepare for war against Christians in the province, where sporadic fighting has raged between the two faiths for more than three years. Mr. Thalib's defense team says the laws he is charged under are no longer in use in Indonesia's criminal code. "Priority one of the motion to dismiss is because the chapter, the article, is no longer in use," said Mohammed Mahendradatta, one of the defense attorneys. Mr. Jafar's defense team also charges that he is a victim of discrimination, because, they say, authorities have not arrested any violent Christian leaders.

Human rights groups say at least 9,000 people have died in fighting between Muslims and Christians in Maluku province since 1999. The fighting intensified in 2000, when the Laskar Jihad sent about two-thousand followers to the area. Mr. Jafar says he did nothing wrong. The trial resumes in two weeks. Several dozen police, armed with rifles and tear gas, were at the courthouse, as were several dozen supporters of Mr. Thalib. No disturbances took place. The Laskar Jihad is one of a handful of small extremist groups operating in Indonesia. It does not claim any links to international terrorist groups.