Indonesia said Friday it would release on humanitarian grounds an elderly Muslim cleric who is serving a 15-year prison sentence for terrorism and is the spiritual leader of the group behind the country’s deadliest terror attack – the 2002 Bali bombings.
Abu Bakar Bashir, 80, has served nine years of his sentence and is being held at the Gunung Sindur penitentiary in Bogor, West Java.
Arrested and jailed in 2010, Bashir was convicted in 2011 of helping fund a militant training camp in Aceh province linked to a plot to attack Western interests in Indonesia, as well as inciting militants to carry out terrorist attacks, including those on Bali island in 2002. The conviction came after previous prosecution attempts failed.
“First, it’s due to humanitarian considerations, considering that he is 80 years old, ill and needs treatment,” Yusril Ihza Mahendra, a presidential adviser on legal affairs, told reporters.
Without elaborating, he said Bashir had agreed to the conditions for his release set by the government.
Bashir had accepted the offer and wanted to be with his family in Solo, Central Java province, Yusril said. He is to be freed within the next few days.
“He wanted to rest at home, not doing many things. He said ‘I don’t mind not being visited by guests. The most important thing is being with my family,’” Yusril said.
In a short message to BenarNews, Yusril said President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo understood Bashir’s wishes to be with his family.
“He said he was only subservient to Islam, not to others. We, including the president, understand the way he thinks, therefore Mr. Jokowi agreed to release him,” he said.
Jokowi, who is seeking re-election on April 17, said he had weighed for a year the prospect of Bashir’s release.
“The security aspect was considered and discussed with the national police chief, experts and Mr. Yusril,” Jokowi told reporters. Yusril served as justice minister under two previous presidents.
Muhammad Mahendradatta, a lawyer representing Bashir, said his client had never asked for clemency or a pardon. Bashir had the right to, but did not apply for parole because he had served two-thirds of his sentence.
Meanwhile, Agus Salim, the governor of Gunung Sindur prison, said he had not received a formal request to release Bashir.
“We are waiting for an order from the minister (of justice),” he told BenarNews.
Bashir’s family welcomed his impending freedom.
Son Abdurrahim Bashir said he received the news from the Ministry of Law and Human Rights.
“Thank God, the president finally approved his release,” he told BenarNews.
He said his father should have been released last year but refused to apply for a presidential pardon as requested by the government.
“The problem is more with the conditions imposed,” he said.
Al Chaidar, an expert on terrorism at Malikussaleh University in Aceh province, said Jokowi’s decision was politically motivated because Bashir commanded support among conservative Muslims who want to see Indonesia governed by sharia (Islamic) law.
Chaidar said the president was “playing with fire.”
“Even though Bashir’s frail and old, what he says will be heard by these radical groups. So in my opinion it is very risky to release him, even if only house arrest,” Chaidar said.
But Sidney Jones, director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict and an expert on Islamic militancy in Indonesia, challenged Chaidar’s concern. She said Bashir no longer posed a threat.
“I think he long ago ceased to be an important player,” Jones told BenarNews. “It doesn’t mean there’s going to be a sudden rise in terrorist activities.”
Bashir has been identified as the spiritual inspiration of Jemaah Islamiyah, a Southeast Asian militant group affiliated with al-Qaeda and which was blamed for the bombings in Bali that killed 202 people more than 16 years ago, along with a series of attacks since then.
He was arrested after the Bali bombings but prosecutors could not link him to the attack. A Jakarta court instead found him guilty of falsifying documents and sentenced him to 18 months in prison.
Bashir was arrested again in 2010 for raising funds to create the militant training camp in Aceh province.
Ahmad Syamsudin in Jakarta contributed to this report.