Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo is in a bind and faces a backlash in an election year, after backtracking on a decision to release ailing radical Muslim preacher Abu Bakar Bashir from prison, analysts said.
On Jan. 18, an adviser to Jokowi’s government announced a plan to release Bashir, 80, over humanitarian concerns, citing his ill health and age, after meeting with him in prison. The move was controversial because the cleric is widely seen as the religious figure who inspired Indonesian militants to carry out the country’s deadliest terrorist attack, the Bali bombings of 2002.
But soon after the initial announcement, Jokowi’s security minister said the proposal was being reviewed and Bashir could be paroled provided that he sign a pledge of allegiance to the state, a condition rejected by the cleric.
“Jokowi’s initial decision to release Abu Bakar Bashir wasn’t well thought through and the whole thing was handled clumsily,” said Adi Prayitno, a political analyst at the Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University in Jakarta.
Some analysts said Jokowi was seeking votes from conservative Muslims in the run-up to Indonesia’s presidential election on April 17. Jokowi is running for a second term against former Gen. Prabowo Subianto, whom he defeated in the 2014 election. Prabowo has cultivated ties with Islamic groups who claim to feel alienated by government policies.
“It appears that Jokowi was seeking to woo certain types of people, those who support Bashir, but if it’s true, that was a mistake,” Adi told BenarNews, adding “there were protests from people who support the government, many of whom are liberals and fervently opposed to radicalism.”
Sri Yunarto, a staff expert at the Coordinating Ministry for Political, Legal and Security Affairs, said Bashir’s release was being studied.
“There are several dimensions to this, including humanitarian. We are taking into account a letter sent by [Bashir’s] family in 2017. But there’s a legal procedure to follow related to parole,” he said on a TV show broadcast Tuesday night.
“Terrorism is a serious issue and in many places it remains a concern. The problem with [releasing] Abu Bakar Bashir is, he has many followers and this needs to involve many institutions. This can’t be done haphazardly,” he said.
Sri Puguh Budi Utami, director general of corrections at the law and human rights ministry, said Bashir had not fulfilled conditions for his parole, even though he had served two-thirds of his sentence as required by law for conditional release.
“We had started a parole process for him and some administrative conditions had already been met. But many requirements have yet to be fulfilled, including recommendations from BNPT and Densus,” she said, referring to the National Counter-Terrorism Agency and the police anti-terrorism unit.
“So when we heard about unconditional release we were confused, because the right mechanism is conditional release,” she added.
Bashir was the spiritual leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, a militant group and regional affiliate of al-Qaeda that was responsible for the 2002 Bali bombings and a string of other attacks in Indonesia since 2000. News that he could be released sparked anger in Australia, whose 88 citizens were among 202 people killed in the Bali attack.
Bashir was arrested but prosecutors could not link him to those bombings. A Jakarta court, however, found him guilty of falsifying documents and sentenced him to 18 months in prison. He was jailed after his 2010 arrest and sentenced in 2011 to 15 years on charges that he helped fund a training camp for Islamic militants in Aceh province as well as incited extremists to carry out terrorist attacks.
In Canberra, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has urged Jokowi to be mindful of Australians’ opposition to the move and said Bashir should serve out his sentence.
“We have been consistent always – governments of both persuasions over a long period of time – about our concerns about Abu Bakar Bashir and that he should serve what the Indonesian justice system has delivered to him as his sentence,” Morrison told The Australian newspaper last week.
At home, many Indonesians opposed the plan to free Bashir, with some of the president’s supporters threatening to not vote for him.
Meanwhile, Jokowi’s apparent about-face has angered conservative Muslims who have accused the president of making yet another unfulfilled promise.
“There was no guarantee that he would win the hearts of conservative Muslims with releasing Bashir, but at the same time, he was alienating his liberal supporters,” analyst Adi Prayitno said.
Prabowo, a former army special forces commander, has drawn support from hardline Muslim groups who see the president as being hostile to their political aspirations.
In 2017, Jokowi issued an emergency regulation allowing the government to ban organizations, which, according to the government, had been deemed as not adhering to Pancasila, Indonesia’s state ideology. It espouses a belief in one God, humanity, unity, pluralism and social justice.
The presidential decree led to Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, the local branch of an international group seeking to establish an Islamic caliphate, being disbanded.
Bashir’s lawyer threatens court action
Lawyer Muhammad Mahendradatta said his client should be released because his health continued to deteriorate, citing the results of a medical examination Tuesday that indicated he suffered from a heart problem, the narrowing of arteries and osteoarthritis.
“It needs to be reaffirmed that Abu Bakar Bashir has never been found guilty of involvement in any bombing, in any court,” Mahendradatta told BenarNews.
Bashir should not be forced to sign a pact of allegiance to the state and the national ideology Pancasila because the law requiring this was passed in 2012 and is not retroactive, he said.
Mahendradatta warned that the legal team would seek a court order for Bashir’s release if the president failed to act.
“We can take legal action based on his health conditions,” he said.
A legal adviser to Jokowi’s re-election campaign, Yusril Ihza Mahendra, who announced the news about Bashir’s possible release, warned that the government could lose if such legal action was taken. He cited a clause on non-retroactivity.
“Irrespective of the debate whether it is wrong or right. If [Bashir] is entitled to parole and that right is not given, the government could be sued and lose,” he told Indonesian media.