Jakarta: Indonesian prosecutors on Monday dropped the most serious terror charges against radical cleric Abu Bakar Bashir for lack of evidence, leaving him facing a possible life sentence instead of death.
Prosecutors at his trial in Jakarta said the charge of providing firearms and explosives for terrorist acts, for which the 72-year-old preacher could have faced the death penalty, "could not be proven convincingly".
The charge of inciting acts of terrorism was also dropped, leaving only the accusation of providing funding of more than USD 62,000 to a terrorist group, for which the prosecutors sought a maximum life sentence.
Hundreds of Bashir`s radical followers erupted into chants of "Allahu akbar" (God is greatest) in support for the man who is widely regarded as a spiritual leader of Southeast Asian jihadists.
As he was led away Bashir said that he rejected the charges and condemned the prosecutors as "friends of the devil".
"Friends of the devil are always like that, always at war with people who try to defend Islam," he said.
"Such insolence. These people should be called terrorists, may Allah immediately send them a disaster."
He said the charges were bogus. "I should have been freed," he added.
About 2,500 police backed by armoured vehicles surrounded the Jakarta courtroom as the cleric appeared in his usual white robes to face the sentencing recommendations.
He told reporters before the hearing that he expected prosecutors to seek his execution.
"It is normal that they will seek the death penalty.... I`ve been turned into an icon as if I`m Osama the terrorist," he said, referring to al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, killed by US special forces in Pakistan last week.
He praised bin Laden as a "holy warrior" who would be richly rewarded in paradise, and warned US President Barack Obama to repent or become a "dog of hell".
The US-trained Detachment 88 anti-terror police squad was on hand and members of the public were patted down for weapons or bombs as they entered the court.
Bashir is the withered but often smiling face of militant Islam in the world`s most populous Muslim-majority country.
The so-called al Qaeda in Aceh group he allegedly funded was planning Mumbai-style attacks using squads of suicide gunmen against Westerners, police and political leaders, according to police.
Its operations leader, Indonesian bomb maker Dulmatin, was killed by police in March last year. Scores of other members of the group have been killed or captured.
Although his former students read like a who`s who of Indonesian jihad, Bashir denies any involvement in terrorism and claims he is being framed by the United States and its allies including "the Jews".
Outside the court, a leader of Bashir supporters screamed anti-American rhetoric through a loudspeaker.
"America are liars. The American military didn`t kill Osama, he died because he was sick," the unidentified man yelled.
"We only obey the law of God and we are willing to die for Allah, not democracy," he added, to shouts of "Allahu akbar" from a crowd of about 200 Islamists.
Bashir served almost 26 months behind bars for the Bali bombings of 2002 that killed more than 200 people, but his conviction was overturned after his release in 2006.
Prosecutors have also unsuccessfully charged him with involvement in church bombings in 2000 and an attack on the Marriott hotel in Jakarta in 2003.
Two years after his release from prison Bashir founded another group, Jemaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT), to continue agitating for sharia law.
Police say JAT was a front for a new campaign of terrorism, but there has been no attempt to shut down the group or arrest its members.
A JAT press release on Monday said Bashir`s trial was an "insult to Muslims".
"It is not a trial of Abu Bakar Bashir but of the implementation of shariah law in Indonesia," it said.