JAKARTA (Reuters) – Indonesian militant cleric Abu Bakar Bashir was jailed for 15 years on Thursday for helping plan a paramilitary group that aimed to kill the country’s president, a sentence that could inflame hardcore Islamists who have vowed revenge.
Jailing Bashir, considered the spiritual leader behind the group that killed more than 200 people in Bali in 2002, is an important step in the government’s efforts to weaken terror groups, but may not reduce the threat of attacks as others push an Islamist agenda.
Bashir does not command widespread support in Indonesia, home to the world’s largest Muslim community, but the guilty verdict could motivate groups which have already vowed reprisals after the U.S. killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
“It will not affect the security risk, but it is still better to keep him from preaching hate speeches,” Ansyaad Mbai, the head of the counter-terrorism agency, told Reuters. “It is another step to stem the radicalization of more young people.”
Underlining that risk, an anonymous text message circulating through the capital this week warned of 36 bombs exploding across the country the moment the judge in the south Jakarta court announced a guilty verdict.
There was no sign of any immediate attacks, though security risk firm Concord Consulting said one person was arrested and bomb making equipment seized in central Java on Thursday.
Indonesia has made progress tackling militant groups in recent years, killing many of their leaders, and political stability and strong growth have made it an emerging market favorite among investors, who have shrugged off security risks.
Police stepped up security during the trial, with 2,900 officers at the court alone, where phone lines were scrambled and balaclava-wearing snipers took positions on surrounding buildings.
The frail 72-year old cleric faced charges of supporting a group that aimed to destabilize Southeast Asia’s largest economy, and turn the officially pluralist and mostly moderate Muslim country into a state with Islamic law.
Bashir has been active in Indonesian extremist circles for decades, founding a boarding school in Java that produced several graduates linked to militant networks, including a man executed in 2008 for the 2002 Bali bombings. He used the trial to rail against perceived U.S. influence in Indonesia.
“I reject this unfair sentence…it is against Islam for me to accept it,” said Bashir, as women in burqas among his supporters wept.
Men in headscarves jogged in a circle outside the court chanting: “The anti-terror detachment and the U.S. are our enemies forever and ever.”
Bashir’s lawyer said he would appeal against the verdict.
Police say Bashir was the spiritual leader of regional group Jemaah Islamiah, blamed for the 2002 Bali bombings that killed tourists in nightclubs, many of them Australian.
Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd welcomed the conviction and said Indonesia had shown resolve in fighting terror.
“The Australian government hopes this conviction brings some measure of justice to the families of the victims,” Rudd said in a statement. “Abu Bakar Bashir’s arrest and successful prosecution were the result of effective work by Indonesian authorities and full credit goes to them.”
This was the third attempt to try the white-bearded cleric on terror charges. Previous trials only kept him briefly behind bars for other crimes such as immigration offences, leading some analysts to expect a light sentence once again.
Market analysts in Jakarta said the heavy jail term would not change investor sentiment.
Indonesian stocks, which slid after hotel bomb attacks in Jakarta in 2009 but have since surged to record highs, dipped on Thursday on worries over global debt. The rupiah currency also eased after a recent rally.
The country is seeing growing foreign direct investment, though business for security advisers is also on the up as firms such as U.S. oil major Chevron and consumer giant Unilever assess risks.
Bashir was found guilty of helping plan and fund a paramilitary training camp discovered last year in a remote mountainous part of Aceh, whose members sought to assassinate the president and turn Indonesia into an Islamic state.
Bashir, who was acquitted on a charge of possessing weapons, had denied involvement in the plan.
Militants linked by police to Bashir’s group Jema’ah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT) have been involved in recent shootouts with police and a suicide bombing at a police mosque in Java, leading analysts to conclude they are changing tactics from focusing on Western targets to attacking local institutions.
“We are here to pray for the judges and prosecutors,” said one of Bashir’s supporters at the court, wearing an Osama bin Laden T-shirt.
“If there is no repentance from them, may God give them bitter pain on earth and in the afterlife.”