Indonesia frees cleric linked to Bali bombing

JAKARTA (AFP) – A radical cleric linked to the Bali bombings was freed from prison yesterday, stirring grief and anger among victims nearly two decades after more than 200 people, mostly foreign tourists, were killed in Indonesia’s worst terror attack.

Abu Bakar Bashir, 82, is seen as the spiritual leader of extremist terror network Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), which was responsible for the massive blasts that ripped through entertainment venues in October 2002.

The firebrand preacher was released after completing an unrelated jail term for helping fund militant training. But he has long been suspected of involvement in the horrific holiday island bombings, which came just a year after the 9/11 attacks on the United States (US).

A van with Bashir inside left Gunung Sindur prison near the capital Jakarta at around 5.30am yesterday, accompanied by members of Indonesia’s elite counter- terror squad.

Bashir was expected to return to his hometown, Solo city.

Sentenced to 15 years in 2011, his term was later cut due to sentencing reductions handed to most prisoners in Indonesia.

Abu Bakar Bashir, 82, once synonymous with militant Islam in the world’s biggest Muslim majority nation and linked to the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings, waves as he arrives back in his hometown of Sukoharjo on January 8, 2021, after his release from prison. AFP

Bashir had been previously jailed over the Bali bombings, but that conviction was quashed on appeal. He has denied involvement and his exact role remains unclear.

The Bali bombings prompted Jakarta to strengthen cooperation with the US and Australia on counter-terrorism.

Al-Qaeda-linked JI – founded by exiled Indonesian militants in neighbouring Malaysia in the 1980s – was largely dismantled by security forces after the 2002 attacks, and a 2005 bombing on the holiday island.

It was also blamed for a 2003 car bomb at the JW Marriott hotel in Jakarta and another the following year outside the Australian embassy.

There have been signs of the network’s resurgence in recent years, although Bashir’s influence has waned, said Jakarta-based security analyst Sidney Jones.

“But his release will be warmly welcomed by… former JI followers as he is still seen as a senior figure in the radical movement in Indonesia,” she added.

Bashir’s lawyers had appealed for his release citing his age and risk of contracting COVID-19 in the Southeast Asian nation’s notoriously overcrowded prison system.