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Indonesia cleric hits Ridge over terror link

Was arrested after Bali club bombings

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- A jailed Muslim cleric sharply criticized the United States yesterday after the US Homeland Security chief said the cleric had "intense and deep involvement" in terrorism.

Speaking from his prison cell, Abubakar Ba'asyir dismissed the remarks by Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge.

"For him, all Islamic figures are enemies," Ba'asyir said. "It is clear that his government is dishonest because it has killed innocent people in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine."

Ridge came to Jakarta, Indonesia's capital, a day after the Supreme Court cut Ba'asyir's prison term in half, meaning he probably will be freed April 4. Ba'asyir had been convicted of forgery and immigration offenses; a treason conviction was annulled earlier.

The 65-year-old cleric was arrested shortly after the 2002 Bali bombings that killed 202 people. He was not directly implicated in the Bali attacks or in a suicide bombing last year that killed 12 people in Jakarta. But several governments have maintained that Ba'asyir was the spiritual leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, the Al Qaeda-linked regional terror group blamed for the bombings.

Although Ba'asyir has denied involvement in terrorism, he has publicly defended the 32 people convicted in the Bali bombings.

Ridge, visiting Indonesia during an Asian tour, said he was disappointed by the Supreme Court ruling and hoped Ba'asyir could "be brought to justice in a different way."

The United States contends Ba'asyir had "intense and deep involvement in the planning and execution of terrorist activities," Ridge said at a news conference with Security Minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia.

Afterward, Yudhoyono said: "The government of Indonesia respects the decision of the court."

Prosecutors have not commented on the Supreme Court ruling, which they can appeal if new evidence is presented to the court.

The government is eager to win Islamic votes in upcoming elections, and some analysts say it could benefit by releasing Ba'asyir, who has support among conservative Muslims.

Ba'asyir originally was sentenced to four years in jail for treason and immigration offenses. An appeals tribunal later reduced his term to three years and annulled the treason conviction.

Some antiterrorism specialists say prosecutors had difficulty establishing a case against Ba'asyir in part because Washington denied police access to two Indonesian terror suspects in US custody.

Eighty-eight of those killed on Bali were Australians. Foreign Minister Alexander Downer of Australia said the Supreme Court ruling could revitalize Jemaah Islamiyah. "This is an organization we've been helping the Indonesians work to round up, and many of them, of course, were involved in the Bali bombing," Downer told ABC Radio.

Also yesterday, Ridge met with President Megawati Sukarnoputri to discuss the war on terror. He declined to answer more questions on Ba'asyir but praised Indonesia's commitment to fighting militancy. "The United States appreciates the successes that Indonesia has achieved in confronting the threat of terror," Ridge said.

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