JAKARTA, Indonesia -- A Muslim cleric accused of heading the terror group blamed for the Bali bombings proclaimed his innocence and said the charges were the work of President Bush and "his slave" -- Australian Prime Minister John Howard -- at the opening of his trial yesterday.
Abubakar Ba'asyir is charged with heading the Al Qaeda-linked group Jemaah Islamiyah and with involvement in two attacks -- the Bali nightclub bombings and a suicide blast at the J.W. Marriott Hotel in Jakarta last year.
The United States and Australia also accuse the 66-year-old cleric of being a key Southeast Asian terror leader.
"I am innocent. The charges are baseless," a relaxed-looking Ba'asyir told reporters before the trial began. "Everybody knows, even schoolchildren, that there is pressure [for a trial] from George Bush and his slave John Howard."
"All those people who do not agree with the interests of George Bush are called terrorists," he said.
The trial is expected to last five months and is considered an early test of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's resolve to fight terrorism. Even though the country has arrested scores of militants, some critics still see Indonesia as a weak link in the war on terror.
It was the second time Ba'asyir has faced terror charges in two years. He was acquitted last year of heading Jemaah Islamiyah.
Prosecutors say they now have new evidence and new witnesses, but the indictment read yesterday failed to directly link Ba'asyir to the ringleaders of either the Bali or the Marriott attacks.
About 100 of Ba'asyir's supporters, including women in head-to-toe-dresses, men in white prayer caps, and young children, turned out for the first day.
Before the Bali bombings, which killed 202 people -- 88 of them Australians -- Ba'asyir was chiefly known for his campaign to replace Indonesia's secular government with one based on Islam, and his vocal criticism of US policies toward Muslim countries. Indonesia is the most populous Muslim nation.
Ba'asyir was not required to make a plea in the hearing, but he urged the judges and prosecutors to be wary of the influence of the United States and Australia, which he called "enemies of God."
The trial was adjourned until next Thursday, when attorneys for Ba'asyir will present their initial objections to the indictment.
Ba'asyir has little active support in Indonesia. But some mainstream clerics and government officials sympathize with him and say he was a victim of foreign intervention.
The primary charge against Ba'asyir under Indonesia's antiterror law accuses him of planning the bombing of the Marriott, which killed 12 people, and -- as head of Jemaah Islamiyah -- inspiring his followers to carry out the attack.
Prosecutor Salman Maryadi said that in 2000, Ba'asyir relayed an edict from Osama bin Laden to Jemaah Islamiyah members that "permitted the waging of war against, and the killing of, Americans and their allies."
A lesser charge that carries a maximum sentence of life in jail accuses Ba'asyir of conspiring in the Bali bombings and of hiding information about the attacks.
If convicted in the Marriott attack, Ba'asyir could face the death penalty.
Ba'asyir has been in prison since shortly after the Bali bombings.