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Bashir Trial Opens in Indonesia - 2003-04-23

The treason trial of a radical Muslim cleric has opened in the Indonesian capital Jakarta. Abu Bakar Bashir, the alleged leader of a Southeast Asian terrorist group, stands accused of bombings to try to topple the Indonesian government. Supporters of Abu Bakar Bashir shout "God is Greatest" as the cleric entered the courtroom. Wearing a traditional Islamic outfit and skull cap, the 65-year-old cleric sat quietly in court as prosecutors read the 25-page indictment against him. Chief prosecutor Hasan Madani says Abu Bakar Bashir is the leader and organizer of treason with the intention of overthrowing the government in order to establish an Islamic state. The indictment says that Mr. Bashir is the spiritual leader of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) - a regional terrorist network, allegedly linked to al-Qaida, with the aim of creating a pan-Islamic state across countries in Southeast Asia.

The charges refer to Mr. Bashir's involvement in a series of acts and plots meant to destabilize Indonesia and the region to achieve JI's aim. They include foiled attacks in Singapore, a string of church bombings in Indonesia in December 2000 and an aborted plot to assassinate Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri.

Authorities arrested Mr. Bashir last October - shortly after more than 200 people died in a deadly bomb attack on the island of Bali. Police blame the attack on JI. But Mr. Bashir has not been indicted in connection to that incident.

Mr. Bashir has consistently denied all charges of terrorism against him.

The trial is seen by many to be a test of the Indonesian government's ability to clamp down on terrorists. In the past, many regional governments have accused Indonesia of not doing enough to stop terrorist groups from organizing.

Members of Mr. Bashir's legal team have said they doubt that their client can be given a fair trial - because the case has been politicized. Speaking before court opened Wednesday, defense attorney Achmad Michdan said he hopes the court can be fair and open and that the judge examines the case without pressure from the government. He says the case is a test of law enforcement in Indonesia.

Court was adjourned after the indictment was read. The trial is expected to resume next week.