JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — A convicted firebrand cleric who inspired the Bali bombers and other violent extremists walked free from an Indonesian prison Friday after completing his sentence for funding the training of Islamic militants.
Police said they would continue to monitor the activities of Abu Bakar Bashir, who is now 82 and ailing, and his son said Bashir for now would be avoiding activities outside his family due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Bashir was imprisoned in 2011 for his links to a militant training camp in the religiously conservative Aceh province. He was convicted of funding the military-style camp to train Islamic militants and sentenced to 15 years in jail.
Bashir has accumulated 55 months of sentence reductions, which are often granted to prisoners on major holidays, such as Independence Day, religious holiday exemptions and illness, said Rika Aprianti, the spokesperson for the corrections department at the Justice Ministry.
“He is released as his sentence ends and expires,” Aprianti said, adding that her ministry had close cooperation with the National Police’s counterterrorism squad and the National Counterterrorism Agency to provide security during the cleric’s release.
Bashir, wearing a white robe and mask, was escorted by members of the police anti-terrorism squad known as Densus 88 and left in a car waiting at dawn outside the Gunung Sindur prison in West Java's Bogor town, Bashir's son, Abdul Rohim, told The Associated Press.
He said the family, lawyers and a medical team accompanied Bashir, who returned to his home in Central Java's Solo city, about 538 kilometers (334 miles) east of the capital, Jakarta. An ambulance also followed the entourage.
National Police spokesperson Ahmad Ramadhan said the police would continue to monitor Bashir’s activities.
“I just want to keep my father from crowds during the coronavirus pandemic,” Rohim said. “He will only rest and gather with his family until the outbreak ends, there will be no other activities of him for sure.”
The slender, white-bearded Bashir, an Indonesian of Yemeni descent, was the spiritual leader of the al-Qaida-linked Jemaah Islamiyah network behind the 2002 bombings on the tourist island of Bali that killed 202 people, mostly foreign tourists, including 88 Australians, leaving a deep scar on that country.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison described Bashir's release as “gut wrenching,” and said the government had long called for tougher sentences against those behind the bombings and raised concerns with Jakarta that individuals must be prevented from inciting such behavior.
“Decisions on sentencing... as we know, are matters for the Indonesian justice system and we have to respect the decisions that they take,” Morrison told reporters Friday.
He said that while Bashir's release was consistent with the Indonesian justice system, “That doesn’t make it any easier for any Australian to accept that... ultimately, those who are responsible for the murder of Australians would now be free. It’s sometimes not a fair world. And that’s one of the hardest things to deal with."
Indonesian authorities had struggled to prove Bashir's involvement in the Bali bombings and fought multiple battles to uphold convictions on other charges. Prosecutors were unable to prove a string of terrorism-related allegations, a treason conviction was overturned, and a sentence for a document forgery conviction was considered light.
Upon release from prison in 2004, he was arrested and again charged with heading Jemaah Islamiyah as well as giving his blessing to the Bali bombings. A court cleared him of heading JI but sentenced him to 30 months for conspiracy in the Bali bombings.
After his release in 2006, he resumed teaching at the Al-Mukmin school in his hometown, Solo in Central Java, and traveled the country giving fiery sermons.
The Al-Mukmin Islamic boarding school he founded with Abdullah Sungkar in 1972 became a militant production line under Bashir’s influence, radicalizing a generation of students. Many of them would later terrorize Indonesia with bombings and attacks that aimed to bring about an Islamic caliphate and battered the country’s reputation for tolerance.
In speeches, Bashir said al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden and three militants sentenced to death for the Bali bombings were not terrorists but “soldiers in Allah’s army.”
A court banned Jemaah Islamiyah in 2008, and the group was weakened by a sustained crackdown on militants by Indonesia’s counterterrorism police with U.S. and Australian support.
The 2010 raid on the camp that Bashir helped fund was a crushing blow to radical networks in Indonesia and forced changes in the mission of Islamic extremists. Instead of targeting Western people and symbols, the militants targeted Indonesians who were deemed “infidels” such as police, anti-terrorism squads, lawmakers and others who were seen as obstacles to transforming the secular country into an Islamic state governed by Sharia law. More recently, the militants have been inspired by Islamic State group attacks abroad.
Sidney Jones, director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, which closely monitors Southeast Asia’s Muslim militant groups, said Bashir’s release will not increase the risk of terrorism in Indonesia as many would-be terrorists today are too young to remember JI’s bombing campaign that took place while Bashir was its leader.
“Extremist cells are far more fractured than they were when Bashir went into prisons,” she said, adding that Bashir has not written anything that could be used as teaching materials for radical groups.
“Moreover, with the government crackdown on ‘radicals,’ I doubt Bashir is going to have much room for radical preaching, even if he wanted to,” Jones said.
Bashir was transferred from isolation on a prison island to Gunung Sindur prison in 2016 for age and health reasons and has been in the hospital several times due to his deteriorating health.
President Joko Widodo almost granted a request for early release in 2019 on humanitarian grounds but reversed himself after protests from the Australian government as well as from relatives of the Bali bombings victims.
Associated Press writer Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, contributed to this report.