January 22, 2019 / 3:39 AM / 5 months ago

Indonesia backtracks on unconditional release of cleric linked to Bali bombing

JAKARTA (Reuters) - Indonesia’s president said on Tuesday a radical Muslim cleric linked to the 2002 Bali bombings would only be released from jail if he pledged loyalty to the state and its ideology, after news he would be freed unconditionally sparked criticism.

President Joko Widodo had declared last week that Abu Bakar Bashir, 81, would be freed on humanitarian grounds, citing his age and poor health.

A legal adviser to the president had said the cleric would be granted unconditional release.

But Widodo said in a statement on Tuesday it would be “conditional release”, a day after the chief security minister said the decision was being reviewed.

“Conditions have to be fulfilled like loyalty to the unitary state of Indonesia, to the Pancasila. That is one of the very basic conditions,” said Widodo

Convicts eligible for early release are required to pledge loyalty to the state and its secular ideology, known as Pancasila, and not to repeat their crimes.

But Bashir’s lawyers say he has refused to do that.

Bashir was the spiritual leader of Jemaah Islamiah (JI), an Islamist group linked to al Qaeda blamed for the 2002 bombing of nightclubs on Bali island that killed more than 200 people, most of them tourists, including 88 Australians.

He was convicted in 2010 under anti-terrorism laws for links to militant training camps in Aceh province and jailed for 15 years.

Although linked to the Bali attacks and a bombing at Jakarta’s Marriott Hotel in 2003, Bashir was never convicted for them and denied those ties. [reut.rs/1qNBwvC]

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, speaking before Widodo set out conditions for Bashir’s release, urged Indonesia not to show him leniency.

“We have been very clear about the need to ensure that as part of our joint counter-terrorism efforts … that Abu Bakar Bashir would not be in any position or in any way able to influence or incite anything,” Morrison told reporters on Monday.

SUSPECTED POLITICAL MOTIVE

Widodo has also come under fire at home over the possible release. Critics have accused him of trying to win over religious conservatives ahead of a presidential election set for April 17 in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country.

Some members of the ruling coalition, including officials in Widodo’s party, fear Bashir’s release could alienate moderate Muslim and non-Muslim voters.

“Everyone is asking: ‘How can we possibly allow this?’,” said an official from Widodo’s Democratic Party of Struggle.

“Now it’s about how many votes we will lose, not gain.”

Most opinion polls have given Widodo a double-digit lead over rival Prabowo Subianto, a retired general who had also contested the presidency in 2014.

Opponents and hardline Islamists have repeatedly attacked Widodo’s Islamic credentials. During the 2014 campaign for the presidency, he had to battle false rumors he was a communist.

In a move to shore up Muslim support this time, Widodo picked for his running mate an Islamic cleric.

Still, some analysts doubted whether releasing Bashir early would win Widodo many conservative voters.

Security and government officials, who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the issue, said they backed the plan to release Bashir to avoid the risk of him dying as a martyr in jail, but felt doing so without conditions was risky.

Another official said the government was considering letting Bashir out of jail but placing him under house arrest.

Indonesia-based terrorism expert Sidney Jones told Reuters that waiving the requirement for Bashir to pledge loyalty to the state and secular state ideology would have set a dangerous precedent.

“It risks turning him into even more of a hero because it’s like he has succeeded in defying the state,” she said, speaking before Widodo set conditions on the release.

Abu Bakar Bashir (C), the alleged mastermind of the 2002 Bali bombings, walks as he is visited by Yusril Ihza Mahendra (R), who is the lawyer of Indonesia's presidential candidate Joko Widodo, at Gunung Sindur prison in Bogor, Indonesia, January 18, 2019. Antara Foto/Yulius Satria Wijaya/via REUTERS

“The end result is that Widodo ends up looking weak, out-manoeuvred and poorly advised.”

Bill McNeil, an survivor of the 2002 bombings, told The Australian newspaper that he found the prospect of Bashir’s release hard to understand.

“It seems sort of crazy they will execute people for drug offences but allow this guy to go free,” McNeil, 43, said.

Additional reporting by Ed Davies and Colin Packham in SYDNEY; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Robert Birsel

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