Trial on for Indonesia's firebrand Islamic cleric

Jakarta, Indonesia - An Indonesian court decided Thursday to go ahead with the trial of a radical Islamic cleric who allegedly helped fund and recruit foot-soldiers for a new al-Qaida-styled terror cell.

The legal team for Abu Bakar Bashir had argued that the South Jakarta District Court had no authority to try the 72-year-old, the case against him was politically motivated and the charges vaguely defined.

Presiding judge Herri Swantoro rejected that, however, telling prosecutors to start preparing more than 130 witnesses for the trial, which resumes next week.

Bashir — co-founder of the al-Qaida-linked network Jemaah Islamiyah, blamed for many of the deadliest attacks in the predominantly Muslim nation — faces a maximum penalty of death if found guilty.

He is accused of helping set up, fund, arm and mobilize militants for a new terror cell uncovered one year ago in westernmost Aceh province as part of efforts to carve out an Islamic state.

It was allegedly planning Mumbai-style gun attacks on foreigners and the assassination of high-profile moderate Muslim leaders like President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Bashir denied involvement, but repeated Thursday that he approved of its aim.

"We have to reorganize this nation into an Islamic state," he told hundreds of rowdy supporters who attended his hearing, most of them gathering in the courtyard, others packed inside. "If prevented, we fight to the death."

A small group unfurled a picture of Osama Bin Laden beside a framed one from Bashir. More than 1,000 police looked on, including several snipers on nearby rooftops.

Indonesia, a secular nation of 237 million with more Muslims than any other in the world, has made strides in fighting terrorism following a string of suicide bombings that have killed more than 260 people in the past decade.

But it still faces pockets of radicalized Islamists and a small but increasingly vocal hard-line fringe has rattled nerves in recent months with violent attacks on minorities.