February 24, 2011 / 3:17 PM / 9 years ago

Indonesian court jails Islamist preacher for spurring violence

JAKARTA (Reuters) - An Indonesian court sentenced Thursday an Islamic preacher to five-and-a-half months in jail for misusing his status to encourage “Muslim lions” to rally at a church, which led to the beating and stabbing of two Christians.

Pluralist campaigners said the sentence was too light and would lead to more violence in the most populous Muslim country, which has won praise for largely defeating Islamic militancy but has seen a recent spike in attacks on members of religious minorities.

The trend could alarm foreign investors eying strong growth in Southeast Asia’s largest economy and betting on political and social stability.

The judges in a court on the outskirts of Jakarta said the preacher, Murhali Barda, 37, had sent text messages to Muslims to gather in force to reject Christians conducting a Sunday service on a temporary site.

“Defendant Murhali Barda has been proven legitimately guilty for a crime to abuse his status to cause objectionable acts,” the judge, Wasdi Permana, said in a court filled with scores of the preacher’s supporters.

“The defendant is a preacher, a charismatic figure who is feared by Muslims, and whose every word will be obeyed by his followers,” said another judge, Hermawansyah.

Barda, dressed in a white Islamic robe and green scarf, has already served about five months and so is expected to walk out of jail within days.

“This sentence will lead to more widespread violence. This trial is done half-heartedly, and will not deter these people to repeat the same act again,” said Guntur Romli, a pluralist activist.

Ten of Barda’s followers, including the men who wounded the church officials, were sentenced to up to seven months in jail.

Under Indonesian regulations, religious believers must obtain a permit along with consent from local people to build a place of worship. However, building such a place in practice is harder for minority groups, rights campaigners say.

Also Thursday, another Jakarta court heard a statement against terror charges against firebrand Islamist cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, 72, who has denied accusations of involvement in a paramilitary militant training camp.

“All Muslim people including you who are in the court have an obligation to make this country an Islamic state,” the frail, white-robed cleric told the South Jakarta court, crowded with hundreds of his followers and police personnel.

Reporting by Olivia Rondonuwu; Editing by Neil Chatterjee and Robert Birsel

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