updated 3/10/2004 1:09:44 PM ET 2004-03-10T18:09:44

A jailed Muslim cleric sharply criticized the United States on Wednesday after the U.S. Homeland Security chief said the cleric was “intensely and deeply” involved in terrorism.

Speaking to The Associated Press from his prison cell, Abu Bakar Bashir dismissed the remarks by Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge.

“For him, all Islamic figures are enemies,” Bashir said. “It is clear that his government is dishonest because it has killed innocent people in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine.”

Ridge came to Jakarta a day after the Supreme Court cut Bashir’s prison term in half, meaning he likely will be set free April 4. Bashir had been convicted of forgery and immigration offenses; a treason conviction was annulled earlier.

The 65-year-old cleric was arrested shortly after the 2002 Bali bombings that killed 202 people. He never was directly implicated in the Bali attacks nor in a suicide bombing last year that killed 12 people in Jakarta. But several governments have maintained Bashir was the spiritual leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, the al-Qaida-linked regional terror group blamed for the bombings.

Cleric defends bombers
Although Bashir has denied any involvement in terrorism, he has publicly defended the 32 people convicted in the Bali bombings.

Ridge, visiting Indonesia during an Asian tour, said he was disappointed by the Supreme Court ruling and hoped Bashir could “be brought to justice in a different way.”

The United States believes Bashir had an “intense and deep involvement in the planning and execution of terrorist activities,” Ridge said at a news conference with Indonesian Security Minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Afterward, Yudhoyono said: “The government of Indonesia respects the decision of the court.”

Prosecutors have yet to comment on the Supreme Court ruling, which they can appeal if new evidence is presented to the court.

Release could be election tactic
The government is eager to win Islamic votes in upcoming elections, and some analysts say it could benefit by releasing Bashir, who enjoys support among conservative Muslims.

Bashir was originally sentenced to four years in jail for treason and immigration offenses. An appeals tribunal later reduced his term to three years and annulled the treason conviction.

Some anti-terrorism experts say prosecutors had difficulty establishing a case against Bashir in part because Washington denied police access to two Indonesian terror suspects in U.S. custody.

Eighty-eight of those killed on Bali were Australians. Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said the Supreme Court ruling could revitalize Jemaah Islamiyah.

“This is an organization we’ve been helping the Indonesians work to round up, and many of them, of course, were involved in the Bali bombing,” Downer told ABC Radio.

Ridge confers with president
Also Wednesday, Ridge met with President Megawati Sukarnoputri to discuss the war on terror. He declined to answer further questions on Bashir, but praised Indonesia’s commitment to fighting militancy.

“The United States appreciates the successes that Indonesia has achieved in confronting the threat of terror,” Ridge said.

Indonesia’s best-known militant cleric, Abu Bakar Bashir, will be released from prison on April 4, after the Supreme Court cut his three-year sentence in half, a court official said Tuesday.

Bashir was detained shortly after the October 2002 Bali bombings amid accusations he headed Jemaah Islamiyah, the al-Qaida linked regional Islamic terror group blamed for blasts.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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