Indonesian counterterrorism officials say they are succeeding in reforming convicted Bali bomber Umar Patek.
Evidence of Patek’s rehabilitation was on display when he carried Indonesia’s red-and-white flag at a ceremony marking National Awakening Day, a holiday commemorating the rise of Indonesian nationalism in the early 20th century, according to officials.
The event took place at Porong Penitentiary in Sidoarjo, East Java province, on May 20.
"My motivation for bearing the Red and White flag is that I am an Indonesian citizen and I wish to show how I love my country, Indonesia,” Patek told reporters after participating in the ceremony.
He is serving a 20-year-sentence there for his role in the 2002 bombings in Sanur, Bali, which killed 202 people, and other attacks.
“Terrorist inmates can be coached to return to the correct path, to love Indonesia, to embrace nationalism, to carry out religious teachings,” National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT) staff expert Agus Surya Bakti told BenarNews, referring to Patek’s surprise appearance at the event.
In January 2011, Patek – whose real name is Hisyam bin Ali Zein – was arrested by local authorities in Abbottabad, Pakistan, a little more than three months before U.S. Navy Seals killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden during an overnight raid in the same town.
Patek was extradited to Indonesia in September of that year. In 2012, an Indonesian court found him guilty of helping build bombs that were used in the October 2002 bombings and attacks on churches in Jakarta on Dec. 24, 2000.
Prosecutors requested life in prison, arguing that Patek had shown remorse during the trial. A judge delivered a more lenient sentence of 20 years.
Some observers reacted skeptically to Patek’s statement after last month’s flag ceremony.
“How can we believe that? He’s only been in prison a few years, yet he was a member of the al-Qaeda terrorist network for a dozen years, and killed innocent people,” Septi Wardani, the brother of a Bali bombing victim, told BenarNews.
“He is the reason my little brother lost his leg. How can I forget that?” Septi added.
“I don’t believe Umar Patek’s change is sincere. This is just BNPT hoop-la.”
Solahudin, a terrorism expert and staff researcher at the University of Indonesia (UI), expressed similar caution.
“It’s too early to use the involvement of Umar Patek in the flag-raising ceremony as a benchmark for the success of the BNPT’s de-radicalization efforts,” he told BenarNews.
Since 2002, the agency has overseen a program that strives to reform Islamic radicals and convicted terrorists, and reintegrate them into society. More than 100 people are now enrolled in the program.
But Sidney Jones, director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), questioned the effectiveness of de-radicalization efforts in general.
“De-radicalization to alter or eliminate radical ideologies, including in Indonesia, has proven ineffective,” she told BenarNews in May.
“This method has not been successfully applied to people influenced by radical views.”
She cited the example of Santoso, a radical who heads the Eastern Indonesia Mujahideen (MIT) militant group and is widely believed to be based in Poso, in Central Sulawesi province.
“He was once given a position and capital in the form of money by the Poso Regency government. That capital was used to pay salaries to his followers and to finance their radical activities,” she said.
Commenting on the case of Umar Patek, another observer questioned the consistency of Indonesia’s judicial system.
“Crimes should have proportional punishment. If you weigh the death penalty meted out to drug convicts against the 20-year sentence given to a terrorism convict who killed hundreds, it raises questions,” Krisbiantoro, deputy director of the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (KontraS), told BenarNews.
In April, Indonesia executed eight drug convicts, most of them foreigners, drawing worldwide condemnation.
Optimism at BNPT
Meanwhile, a BNPT official in charge of rehabilitation at the agency voiced optimism about Umar Patek’s progress on the path toward reform.
“Umar Patek was difficult to approach, but we believe he is a devout Muslim who will work with us,” the official, Werijon, told BenarNews.
“We’re optimistic. If Umar Patek, a terrorist leader, can work with us, we can use this for others as well,” he said.
But it is not easy to reintegrate perpetrators of terrorist acts back into society, according to Agus, the staff expert at BNPT.
“Terrorist convicts are very difficult to approach and to get them to socialize with others outside of their cohort,” Agus said.
In his view, developing nationalism is the first step in de-radicalization, to be followed by training in self-reliance and job skills.
“This is important so that they can make a smooth return to society,” he said.