Notorious Islamic extremist Abu Bakar Bashir, who is suspected of being a mastermind behind the Bali bombings, has been released from an Indonesian prison.
Bashir, now 82, was released because his sentence for terror offences expired early due to good behaviour behind bars.
He was the spiritual leader of terrorist group Jemaah Islamiah (JI) in 2002 when it carried out the Bali bombings, although he’s always denied being involved.
Bashir was released early this morning and was met at the jail by his son, lawyers and a doctor.
His lawyer Achmad Michdan said in a statement that Bashir left jail at 5:30am local time, in order to “avoid crowds”.
He said the cleric was tested for COVID-19 prior to leaving Gunung Sindur prison and that the result came back negative.
Local media said Mr Bashir was wearing all white clothes and a mask, and was immediately taken by car to the Al Mukmin Ngruki Islamic Boarding School, in Sukoharjo, Central Java.
Two hundred and two people were killed and 209 were injured when JI set off bombs in two Bali nightclubs and outside the US consulate on October 12, 2002.
Australia lost 88 people that night and the attacks remain the single largest loss of Australian life from an act of terrorism.
Bashir, who was JI’s spiritual leader, was jailed in 2005 for conspiracy over the attacks but his conviction was quashed on appeal.
In 2011 he was handed a 15-year prison term for his links to militant training camps in Aceh, but after a number of periodic reductions for good behaviour, his sentence has now expired.
Extremist to teach ‘as long as he still breathes’
Mr Michdan earlier told the ABC his client was looking forward to reconnecting with family and religious figures, and teaching his Muslim faith.
“He is yet to be satisfied in terms of teaching, he still wants to teach,” Mr Michdan said.
“As long as he still breathes, his duty is to teach, that’s what he said.”
Mr Michdan said he told Bashir about coronavirus pandemic restrictions and explained how because of his old age and declining health he would be better off involving other people to teach, or setting up a research centre.
“We put forward the idea that he no longer needs to go around to spread his teachings, this is the digital, internet and social media era which can go to the end of the world, there’s no need to drain your energy,” he said.
His comments are sure to anger survivors and victims’ families who this week expressed their fear that Bashir would preach hate and incite violence when he is released from prison.
But Bashir’s lawyer told the ABC his client “said he doesn’t like violence, or recommending violence in his sermons”.
Mr Michdan added that the Australian Government’s narrative about the Muslim cleric was an “exaggeration”.
“Abu Bakar Bashir was proven in court to never be involved [in the Bali bombings], yet they still hook him up with it,” Mr Michdan said.
“I think this is a violation against the constitution, interfering with matters in another country, and also discrediting Abu Bakar Bashir.”
In a statement, Foreign Minister Marise Payne said Australia had always called for those involved in the Bali bombings to “face tough, proportionate and just sentences”.
“Decisions on sentencing are matters for the Indonesian justice system and we respect Indonesia’s sovereignty and the independence of its judiciary,” Ms Payne said.
“Our embassy in Jakarta has made clear our concerns that such individuals be prevented from further inciting others to carry out future attacks against innocent civilians.
“Australian law enforcement and security agencies have had excellent cooperation with their Indonesian counterparts for many years and we have confidence in Indonesia’s counter-terrorism capabilities.”
Authorities hope cleric is a changed man
Brigadier General Eddy Hartono, the director of law enforcement at Indonesia’s National Counter Terrorism Agency, told the ABC he believed Bashir was now a different man to the one who was put behind bars in 2011.
“I am optimistic that Abu Bakar Bashir is now changed,” he said.
“We are hoping for Abu Bakar Bashir to be an agent of change for terrorism networks or ex-terrorists, so he can set an example by giving preach that is peaceful.”
Brigadier General Hartono added that law enforcement agencies would continue to monitor him closely anyway.
“There is a possibility of [him energising the terror network] so we will keep up the effort because we cannot underestimate this release of Abu Bakar Bashir,” he said.
“Hopefully [he] will give peaceful sermons after he gets released, not as a trigger for his followers to do another bad action — this is what we will monitor.”