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Indonesian Court Acquits Laskar Jihad Leader - 2003-01-30

An Indonesian court has acquitted the leader of a militant group suspected of inciting violence between Muslims and Christians in eastern Indonesia. Jafar Umar Thalib was the leader of the group Laskar Jihad and the first militant leader to be brought to court in Indonesia.

Supporters of Jafar Umar Thalib shout Allahu Akbar, or "God is great," as a judge declares that the militant leader is free to go.

Justice Mansur Nasution ruled that prosecutors failed to prove any of the charges against the defendant.

Mr. Thalib was the leader of Laskar Jihad or "The Holy War Force." He faced a year in prison on charges he incited his followers to commit violence against Christians in a speech he made in a mosque in the city of Ambon last year. He was also accused of insulting President Megawati Sukarnoputri in the same speech.

Mr. Thalib's trial opened in the Indonesian capital Jakarta last August. He maintained that the charges against him were politically motivated.

He says that since the beginning of the police investigation and throughout the trial there has been a lot of pressure on him. He says even the witnesses were pressured.

Human rights groups have charged that Laskar Jihad intensified the long-running conflict between Muslims and Christians in the eastern province of Maluku when the group deployed there three years ago. Thousands of people have died in fighting there.

Mr. Thalib is the first Indonesian militant leader to be brought to trial. Some political analysts see his trial as a test of the government's willingness to crackdown in extremist leaders in the wake of the devastating bomb attack on Bali last October.

More than 190 people were killed in the attack, which police say was carried out by Jemaah Islamiyah - a regional extremist group suspected of having links to the al-Qaida network.

The Laskar Jihad was disbanded last October - shortly after the Bali bombing. At the time, Mr. Thalib denied he was under pressure from authorities to halt the group's activities.