An Islamic militant who eluded capture for 18 years was sentenced to 15 years in prison on Wednesday after an Indonesian court found him guilty of hiding information about the 2002 Bali bombings from authorities and harboring other suspects.
Prosecutors previously demanded a life sentence for Aris Sumarsono, 58, whose real name is Arif Sunarso but is better known as Zulkarnaen, for his role in the October 2002 Bali bombings that killed 202 people, mostly foreign tourists including 88 Australians and seven Americans.
However, the panel of three judges in East Jakarta District Court said they ignored the prosecutors' first charge because the prosecution period had expired, and they sentenced Zulkarnaen to 15 years in jail for harboring other suspects, including bomb-maker Upik Lawanga, and for hiding information from authorities about the deadly attacks.
Indonesia's Criminal Code stipulates that the authority to prosecute criminals is abolished after 18 years.
"The accused is found guilty in a legal and convincing manner of carrying out an act of terrorism of third charge," the presiding judge told the court in a session that was held remotely due to the pandemic, adding that Zulkarnaen knew about the terrorism attacks but "did not inform authorities; instead, he harbored a terror suspect."
Zulkarnaen has been detained since Dec. 10, 2020. The judges ordered that the time he has already served be deducted from his sentence.
Prosecutors said they would appeal to a higher court, while Zulkarnaen said he accepted the ruling and would not appeal.
Police and prosecutors say Zulkarnaen is the former military commander of Jemaah Islamiyah, a Southeast Asian militant group with ties to al-Qaida. The group is widely blamed for the October 2002 nightclub bombings on the Indonesian resort island of Bali and attacks in the Philippines.
Zulkarnaen had eluded capture for 18 years after being named a suspect in the 2002 suicide bombings of Paddy's Pub and the Sari Club in Bali. He was arrested in 2020 in the same southern town on Sumatra island where Lawanga, a bomb-maker for the Jemaah Islamiyah network who eluded capture for 16 years, was arrested by counterterrorism police a week earlier. Lawanga was sentenced to life in prison last month.
Police were tipped off to their hideout after interrogating several suspected militants arrested in earlier raids.
Zulkarnaen argued that although he was a leader of the network's military wing, he was not involved in the operation of the Bali bombings, as he was focused on organizing his squad for sectarian conflicts in Ambon and Poso and in the southern Philippines.
"I didn't even know when the Bali bombings would take place," Zulkarnaen told the court in his plea last week.
During his trial, which began in September, other convicted militants in the 2002 Bali bombings, including Umar Patek and Ali Imron, who were sentenced to 20 years and life in jail, respectively, supported Zulkarnaen's claim, saying he knew about the plot but did not play a role in its operation.
Police previously said Zulkarnaen masterminded church attacks that occurred simultaneously in many Indonesian regions on Christmas and New Year's Eve in 2000 that killed more than 20 people. He was also the mastermind of a bomb attack on the official residence of the Philippine ambassador in Jakarta in 2000 that killed two people, and the architect of sectarian conflict in Ambon and Poso from 1998 to 2000.
Conflicts between Christians and Muslims in Ambon, the provincial capital of the Molluca islands, left more than 5,000 people dead and half a million displaced. The Muslim-Christian conflict in Poso, known as a hotbed of Islamic militancy on Indonesia's Sulawesi island, killed at least 1,000 people from 1998 to 2002.
Zulkarnaen was among the first Indonesian militants to go to Afghanistan in the 1980s for training. He later became an instructor at a military academy there for seven years, Indonesian police said.
Since May 2005, Zulkarnaen has been named on an al-Qaida sanctions list by the U.N. Security Council for being associated with Osama bin Laden or the Taliban.
The Security Council said that Zulkarnaen, who became an expert in sabotage, was one of al-Qaida's representatives in Southeast Asia and one of the few people in Indonesia who had had direct contact with bin Laden's network.
It said that Zulkarnaen led a squad of fighters known as the Laskar Khos, or Special Force, whose members were recruited from among some 300 Indonesians who trained in Afghanistan and the Philippines.
Zulkarnaen was appointed the head of Camp Saddah, a military academy in the southern Philippines established for fighters from Southeast Asia, the Security Council said. He spent a decade at the camp training other Jemaah Islamiyah members.
He became operations chief for Jemaah Islamiyah after the arrest of his predecessor, Encep Nurjaman, also known as Hambali, in Thailand in 2003.
The United States' "Rewards for Justice" program had offered a bounty of up to $5 million for his capture. He was the only Indonesian on the list.