International pressure forces Jakarta arrest

By Andrew Gumbel
Friday 24 January 2014 03:04

The Indonesian government, which yesterday ordered the arrest of the country's leading Islamic militant, was reacting to intense international pressure in the wake of last week's Bali disco bombings – pressure which also brought a flurry of anti-terrorism decrees.

The steps were taken hesitantly and much later than foreign governments, notably the United States, would have liked. However, they were the most robust actions by far that the Indonesian government, riven by internal rivalries and fearful of a backlash, has taken against Islamic extremists.

Abu Bakar Bashir, who has been accused of leading the radical Jemaah Islamiyah, a group suspected of ties to Osama bin Laden's al-Qa'ida organisation, was formally placed under arrest following his purported collapse and admission to hospital in his home town of Solo, on the island of Java.

Government officials said he would remain in hospital for as long as he required treatment but that he was now under police guard and would be taken into custody as soon as his health permitted. "He is now under police control," Indonesia's director of criminal investigations, Brigadier General Aryanto Sutadi, told reporters.

It is the prospect of arresting Mr Bashir that appears to have most unnerved the authorities. As late as 11 October, the day before the bombings, the US ambassador to Indonesia, Ralph Boyce, was begging the authorities to take decisive action against Islamic militants, but to no avail.

The radical cleric remained entirely free for days after the bombing, and was originally asked only to travel to Jakarta for questioning by the police. Even now some police sources say he is wanted only in connection with a bombing campaign in Indonesia two years ago, not the Bali attack.

Nonetheless, a shift in government policy is unmistakably under way. The country's Defence Minister, Matori Abdul Djalil, said explicitly on a visit to the bomb scene in Bali that he believed al-Qa'ida was responsible for the attack, along with supporters from within Indonesia. "I think that some group of international terrorism in co-operation and co-ordination with an inner group of terrorists here in Indonesia is involved in this," he said.

That was a drastic change of tone from just one day earlier, when Indonesia's security minister appeared to suggest the Bali bombing was carried out by foreigners and insisted there was no Jemaah Islamiyah presence in the country at all.

The shift was also signalled by the anti-terrorism decrees signed at midnight by Indonesia's president, Megawati Sukarnoputri. These greatly expand police powers of detention and interrogation and stipulate much tough sentencing for convicted terrorists – anything from four years in prison to death.

The decrees risked the wrath of two entirely separate constituencies in Indonesia – the civil rights movement, which is worried that expanded police powers might shatter the country's fragile transition from dictatorship to democracy, and Islamic radicals, who might express their disapproval of any repression through future bomb attacks.

Faced with US pressure and Australian anger over the devastation wreaked on Kuta Beach eight days ago, the government had little choice in the matter. The Indonesians also invited the Australians to participate in the investigation into the bombing – an investigation that in the first few days has gone almost nowhere.

Last night, the Indonesians disclosed that they had questioned 67 people in connection with the bombing but – with the exception of Mr Bashir – had not made a single arrest.

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