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Senior Muslim Cleric Avoids Terror Charges in 2002 Bali Bombing - 2004-07-28

Indonesian police say they will not charge a militant Islamic cleric for the 2002 nightclub bombing on the island of Bali. The decision was made just days after Indonesia's Constitutional Court limited the use of the country's anti-terrorism legislation.

Indonesian police said Wednesday that Abu Bakar Bashir, the militant cleric alleged to have been the leader of the terror group Jemaah Islamiyah, will not be charged in connection with the October 2002 Bali bombing. More than 200 people were killed in that attack. Most of them were young western tourists.

The decision comes just days after Indonesia's Constitutional Court ruled that the country's anti-terrorism law, which was passed shortly after the Bali bombing, could not be used to prosecute crimes committed before it was enacted.

Bashir has been in custody for almost three months while police investigate his alleged terrorist connections.

Although Bashir has made little secret of his hatred of the West, he has always denied any involvement in violence as well as leadership of Jemaah Islamiyah, which is believed linked to the al-Qaida terror network.

Bashir's defense team lodged an appeal Wednesday for his immediate release. One of his lawyers, Wirawan Adnan, says the police are scrambling to find reasons to continue to hold his client. "They have lost legal foundation to arrest our client," he says. "They just do not want to admit that defeat by trying to find unreasonable cause to keep our client in their custody."

Bashir is not likely to walk free any time soon. He is still being held under the anti-terrorism act and could remain in police custody for another three months before he must be formally charged.

Despite the recent court ruling, police can still charge Bashir for alleged involvement in crimes under pre-existing criminal laws. And, they can also charge him for involvement in later terrorist crimes, such as last August's car bomb attack on the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta, in which 12 people died.

The Constitutional Court decision on the Bali bombing has thrown the fight against terrorism in Indonesia into disarray. Thirty two men have been convicted under the law, and three of them have been sentenced to death. It is unclear if all, part, or none of their convictions will now be allowed to stand. Their lawyers say that unless the men are released, they will file appeals.