Search Tuesday September 23, 2003

Philip Bowring: Debunking Jakarta's courts hurts West
Lynch-mob journalism
By Philip Bowring (IHT)
Monday, September 15, 2003

HONG KONG: The Indonesian Islamic militant and alleged leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, Abu Bakar Bashir, deserves bad press. But neither he nor anyone else deserves the lynch-mob journalism that has characterized much foreign reporting of the result of his recent trial in Jakarta on terrorism and treason charges. Two years after Sept. 11, this is just adding to perceptions that the West, consumed with self-pity, wants to strike out blindly against Islamists generally rather than seek justice for those who carry out terrorist acts.

Bashir was found guilty of treason for advocating the overthrow of the secular Indonesian state in favor of a strictly Islamic entity encompassing the Muslims of southeast Asia. He was acquitted of the terror charges for want of evidence.

The decision was greeted by much of the foreign media as evidence that Indonesia was in denial of the terrorism in its midst and unwilling to confront the extremists. Bashir's guilt was taken for granted, often referring to the claims of nameless Western sources rather than to the facts presented. The integrity of the prosecution and judges was widely impugned. Coverage also often suggested that Indonesian authorities are lax toward terror on their own soil, even though isolated acts, mostly aimed at Indonesians not foreigners, have been taking place sporadically for years.

The fact is there was too little in the evidence presented to convict Bashir. Perhaps there would have been had the United States allowed detainees it is holding incommunicado to give evidence against him. They were not. That naturally raises the question: If Bashir really is the head of Southeast Asia's terror network, why has cooperation to put him away been so minimal? Meanwhile, the proven perpetrators of the Bali bombing have been prosecuted and sentenced to death by Indonesian courts.

It is useful to contrast the attitude to Bashir with similar situations in the West. Bashir may be the spiritual leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, a long-established but loose-knit group some of whose members have been responsible for terrorist acts. But any relationship between political leadership and terrorism is less formal than existed between Sinn Fein and the Irish Republican Army in the years before the uneasy commitment to the peace process. Sinn Fein's leader Gerry Adams was never charged with treason or with organizing terror. Indeed he was free to visit the United States and raise money for Sinn Fein.

Bashir could plausibly argue that even the treason conviction against him was contrary to the freedoms promised by the Indonesian constitution. It could be argued that to criminalize advocacy of the change in the nature of the state is, of itself, no more or less treasonable than advocacy of Communism was in 1950's Europe. On the other hand, the Chinese regard advocacy of Tibetan independence as treason. Yet President George W. Bush - quite reasonably - recently received the spiritual leader of the Tibetan independence movement, the Dalai Lama.

If the political promoters of change in the dimensions or nature of a state are to be criminalized, is it not time to take action against those in the West promoting the further expansion of Israel through Jewish settlement of Palestinian land?

Indonesia is right not to want to make a martyr of Bashir without better evidence of organizing violence. Being rather better versed in colonial history then most Westerners, they may recollect the role of treason trials in those days. Among the more notorious was the 1953 imprisonment of Jomo Kenyatta, the nationalist who became Kenya's first president, for "managing" the Mau Mau guerrilla movement. Kenyatta was political leader of the fight against colonial rule, but there was scant evidence that he himself organized Mau Mau violence.

The success of Al Qaeda was always going to be judged not by the destruction it wrought but by the response it elicited. Judging by the West's denial of its own principals through internment without trial and other so-called antiterror measures, the Iraq war and other events in the Middle East, Osama bin Laden is doing rather well at undermining values and relationships.

Arrogant and ignorant foreign derision of Indonesia's courts and newly democratic political system is offensive to secular Indonesian nationalists. It makes more enemies for the West and further gains for the Islamists.