JAKARTA, Indonesia -- An Islamic cleric believed to lead a terrorist group linked to Al Qaeda was charged yesterday with ordering a deadly attack on an Indonesian hotel last year -- a legal move that is expected to please the United States, which has long demanded action against Abu Bakar Bashir.
The 67-year-old Bashir, jailed since 2002, is often seen as the public face of the country's radical Islamic fringe and is thought to be the inspirational leader of the Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist group. But prosecutors did not say whether they would charge Bashir with leading Jemaah Islamiyah.
The group has been blamed for a string of terrorist attacks in Indonesia beginning in 1999 that has killed 224 people and injured hundreds more. The bombings targeted the Australian Embassy in Jakarta last month, the J.W. Marriott hotel in August 2003, and nightclubs on Bali in October 2002.
The Marriott suicide bombing killed 12 people.
"Bashir is charged with motivating or ordering people to take part in terrorism, in this case related to the J.W. Marriott bombing," prosecutor Andi Herman said after filing a 65-page charge sheet against Bashir at South Jakarta District Court.
Bashir also will be charged with storing explosives in connection with a massive seizure of bomb-making materials last year in Central Java Province, Herman said.
But authorities will not charge Bashir in connection with the Bali attacks because the country's top court ruled earlier this year that retroactively applying Indonesia's counterterrorism law was unconstitutional. Bashir has been jailed since 2002, when he was convicted of minor immigration infractions.
The United States and Australia have campaigned to keep Bashir imprisoned, accusing him of heading Jemaah Islamiyah and orchestrating terrorist attacks.
"The government welcomes the charges against Abu Bakar Bashir," a spokesman for Foreign Minister Alexander Downer of Australia told Australian Associated Press. "This is a demonstration of Indonesia's commitment to the prosecution of those responsible for the Bali bombings."
Bashir, whose trial could start later this year, could face the death penalty if convicted. The trial probably will test the counterterrorism credentials of President-elect Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
Bashir denied involvement in the Marriott suicide attack and said he was being targeted for his campaign to introduce Islamic law in Indonesia and for speaking out against US foreign policy.
"America knows I have nothing to do with bombings or terrorism," Bashir said earlier this year. "It is afraid of my struggle to impose Islamic law in Indonesia. It is trying to destroy Islam from within."
Bashir's attorney, Wirawan Adnan, said prosecutors "really don't have a case," but he feared a conviction.
"He has a good alibi. He was in jail when this happened," he said. "But I don't think we'll win this case. He'll be in jail forever."
Bashir was cleared of terrorism charges but convicted of the immigration violations at a 2002 trial. He was rearrested after completing his sentence.
Authorities probably will present much of the same evidence at the upcoming trial, but said their case was strengthened by new witnesses and documents seized during a crackdown on militants.
Prosecutors will present a report on a Jemaah Islamiyah training ground in the Philippines identifying Bashir as the group's leader. A former group operative, Nasir Abbas, will testify that Bashir heads the terrorist network.
Adnan said the credibility of witnesses like Abbas has been undermined by their cooperation with authorities. Abbas also seems to be an unreliable witness; he told the AP that Jemaah Islamiyah is not a terrorist organization and that he did not know whether Bashir played a role in terrorism.
In jailhouse speeches, the cleric has said he disapproves of recent terrorist attacks but "respects" those carrying them out.