A militant cleric alleged to be a top leader in an al-Qaida linked terror group was released from prison Wednesday to cries of “God is great” from cheering supporters.
Abu Bakar Bashir, 68, had served 26 months for conspiracy in the 2002 Bali bombings, which killed 202 people and thrust Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, onto the front lines of the war on terror.
“I thank Allah that I am free today,” a smiling Bashir said after emerging from a scrum of about 150 supporters and journalists waiting outside the gates of Jakarta’s Cipinang prison. “I call on all Muslims to unite behind one goal, that is the implementation of Sharia law.”
Australia and the United States, which have accused Bashir of being a key Southeast Asian terrorist, said they were disappointed at his release, as did Australian victims of the Bali blasts.
Bashir was alleged to be a leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, which is accused of carrying out church bombings across Indonesia in 2000, the 2002 Bali bombings, attacks in the Indonesian capital in 2003 and 2004, and a triple suicide bombing on Bali last October. The attacks together killed more than 260 people.
His freedom has raised concerns that he will energize Indonesia’s small, Islamic radical fringe, but few believe the stick-thin, softly spoken cleric will play any direct role in terrorism in the future.
Bashir boarded a car to the central Javanese city of Solo, where his lawyers say he intends to begin teaching again at the boarding school he founded and which was attended by many of Indonesia’s convicted terrorists.
Before the Bali blasts, Bashir was chiefly known for his vocal support of moves to make the secular country an Islamic state and his criticism of U.S. policy toward Muslim countries. He has always maintained his innocence.
Indonesia’s State Intelligence Agency chief, Syamsir Siregar, said he hoped Bashir would “regain his self-awareness and be willing to cooperate with us.”
The leading expert on Jemaah Islamiyah said she thought his release would not lead to more terror attacks.
“I don’t think it makes much difference whether he’s released or stays in prison,” said Sidney Jones, the Jakarta-based director of International Crisis Group.
“I think he will reinforce anti-Western feelings ... but I don’t think he’ll necessary push people over the line from radical rhetoric to violence.”
The U.S. State Department expressed deep disappointment about what it called Bashir’s light sentence. Spokesman Sean McCormack noted on Tuesday that the court which convicted him concluded that he was a participant in “a sinister conspiracy to cause a fire or explosion resulting in deaths.”
But, he said, it is up to Indonesians and the Indonesian courts to interpret their own laws.
Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said Canberra was worried that Bashir would resume preaching militancy.
“I have some concerns about his advocacy, there’s no question of that,” Downer told Sky News. “This is somebody who believes in the jihadist principles.”
Bashir was found guilty of blessing the 2002 Bali attacks, but cleared of more serious terrorist charges.
No evidence has ever been presented linking him to the execution, preparation or commission of terrorist attacks, and most analysts agree he had little operational role within Jemaah Islamiyah.
The turnout at the prison on Wednesday was small despite efforts by his supporters to rally a large crowd, and no mainstream Islamic figures or politicians were present, underscoring his small and isolated following.
Eight-eighty of the Bali bombing victims were from Australia, and some of the relatives of the dead and survivors expressed disappointment over Bashir’s release.
“I think the Indonesian government need to have a good look at themselves,” said Peter Hughes, 46, by telephone from the western Australian city of Perth.
Hughes survived the blasts with burns over 56 percent of his body and shrapnel wounds.