Indonesian Islamist cleric jailed for 15 years

Indonesian militant cleric Abu Bakar Bashir was jailed for 15 years today 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 is an important step in the government's efforts to weaken terror groups, but may not reduce the threat of attacks in a country with the world's largest Muslim community as others seek to push an Islamist agenda.

Bashir does not command widespread support in Indonesia, but the guilty verdict on charges of helping plan terror attacks could motivate groups which have already vowed reprisals after the US killing of al-Qa'ida leader Osama bin Laden.

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 the verdict.

There was no sign of any immediate attacks.

"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 radicalisation of more young people."

Police stepped up security, 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 destabilise Southeast Asia's largest economy, and turn the officially pluralist and mostly moderate Muslim country into a state with Islamic law.

"I reject this unfair 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 US are our enemies forever and ever."

Bashir's lawyer said he would appeal against the verdict.

Indonesia has made progress tackling militant groups in recent years, and a period of political stability and strong economic growth has made it an emerging market favourite among investors, though security risks remain.

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.

Police say Bashir was also the spiritual leader of regional group Jemaah Islamiah, blamed for the 2002 Bali bombings that killed more than 200 people, many of them foreigners.

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.

The cleric had denied his involvement in the training camp based in Aceh province, which is governed by Islamic law.

"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."