By Riza Chadijah
Abu Bakar Bashir, the radical Muslim cleric who co-founded a militant group blamed for Indonesia’s deadliest terrorist attack, will be released from prison on Jan. 8 after his 15-year sentence was cut for good behavior, officials announced Monday.
Bashir is the 82-year-old former spiritual leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, the Southeast Asian affiliate of the al-Qaeda global terror network that was blamed for the 2002 Bali bombings, which killed 202 people, as well as a string of other deadly attacks across Indonesia during the 2000s.
“He will be released on January 8, 2020 as he has served out his term,” Rika Aprianti, spokeswoman for the Directorate General of Corrections, which comes under the Ministry of Law and Human Rights, said in a statement.
Authorities never proved a link between Bashir and the Bali attacks of October 2002, but he was arrested in 2010 and sentenced the next year to 15 years in prison on other terror-related charges. A court found him guilty of helping fund a training camp for Islamic militants in Aceh province and inciting extremists to carry out attacks.
Bashir spent his first five years in prison at the Nusakambangan penal island complex off Central Java before being transferred to a prison in Bogor, just south of Jakarta.
Rika said correctional authorities had prepared special safeguards for Bashir’s release and would be working the National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT) and Densus 88, an elite police anti-terror unit, to keep an eye on the cleric.
Two years ago, an adviser to the government of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo announced that Bashir would be released unconditionally on humanitarian grounds, citing his poor health and age.
News that he could be released caused outrage in neighboring Australia, which lost 88 of its citizens to the 2002 Bali bombings.
The Indonesian government later backtracked on the proposal and said Bashir could be paroled if he signed a pledge of allegiance to the state – a condition which the cleric refused to abide by.
The government’s apparent about-face came after Indonesians, including supporters of Jokowi, took to social media to express opposition to Bashir’s release.
In addition, Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, urged Jokowi at the time to show respect for the scores of citizens from that country who were killed in the Bali blasts.
Bashir was arrested after those bombings 18 years ago but prosecutors could not establish a link between him and the twin attack. A Jakarta court, however, found him guilty of falsifying documents and sentenced him then to 18 months in prison.
On Monday, the head of the law ministry’s West Java provincial office, said Bashir had a total of 55 months cut from his 15-year sentence because of good behavior.
“He has served the sentence well and followed all the security guidance at the Gunung Sindur maximum-security prison,” Imam Suyudi told reporters.
He said Bashir was in good health, despite a history of illness.
“He is well and in good spirits. I hope he will be healthy after returning to his family,” he said.
The National Police said it would monitor Bashir’s movements after his scheduled release on Friday.
“We have intelligence officers who will keep an eye on people who have committed crimes,” police spokesman Ahmad Ramadhan told reporters.
No homecoming party
Bashir’s family, meanwhile, said there would be no party to welcome home the elderly cleric.
“We have been waiting for this moment for a long time, this is an unconditional release because the prison term has been served. There should be no reason to delay any longer,” his son, Abdul Rochim, told BenarNews.
He said the family would take Bashir to his home town in Sukoharjo, near the city of Solo where he had founded an Islamic boarding school called Al-Mukmin.
“He is old, so when he comes home, we will not hold a special reception,” Abdul Rochim said.
The family will not allow many people to meet Bashir, Abdul Rochim said.
“This is a COVID-19 pandemic situation, so only few people will be allowed to meet,” he said.
“We don’t want to be a COVID-19 cluster and our father’s condition means he is at high risk. We hope that anyone who really loves our father can just pray from home,” he said.
Analyst: No more ties with JI
According to the head of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, a Jakarta think-tank, Bashir no longer has a relationship with Jemaah Islamiyah.
“He’s completely severed ties with JI,” IPAC Director Sidney Jones told BenarNews.
In 2020, Indonesian police arrested dozens of JI suspects, including its alleged military chief at the time of the 2002 Bali bombings, Zulkarnaen, and Upik Lawanga, whom investigators said was the group’s expert bomb-maker.
However, the issue of whether Bashir remains a supporter of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group is open to question, according to Jones. Indonesian authorities had said that Bashir pledged allegiance to IS in 2014 when he was incarcerated on Nusakambangan Island.
“Whether he is still pro-ISIS or not, he will still be seen as the elder of the extremist movement, and not only by one organization but also all of them, because he is seen as a person who has contributed a lot to the movement,” Jones said, using another acronym for IS.
Kusumasari Ayuningtyas contributed to this report from Ngruki, Central Java, Indonesia.