Indonesia frees cleric linked to deadly 2002 Bali bombings

Abu Bakar Bashir, 82, was serving a sentence for funding militant training in Indonesia's Aceh province

This handout photo taken on January 8, 2021 and released by Indonesia National Prison shows Abu Bakar Bashir, 82 (C), once synonymous with militant Islam in the world's biggest Muslim majority nation, being escorted by prison guards as he leaves the Gunung Sindur prison in Bogor, on the outskirts of Jakarta, after completing a 15 year prison term.  RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT / AFP PHOTO / Indonesia National Prison / NO MARKETING - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
 / AFP / Indonesia National Prison / HANDOUT / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT / AFP PHOTO / Indonesia National Prison / NO MARKETING - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS

A radical cleric linked to the Bali nightclub bombings was freed from prison on Friday, stirring grief and anger among victims nearly two decades after 202 people were killed in Indonesia's worst terror attack.

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

Many of the victims were foreign tourists and included 28 Britons and 88 Australians among the dead.

Abu Bakar Bashir, 82, once synonymous with militant Islam in the world's biggest Muslim majority nation, leaves the Gunung Sindur prison in Bogor, on the outskirts of Jakarta, after completing a 15 year prison term on January 8, 2021. / AFP / Aditya Aji

The firebrand preacher was released after completing an unrelated jail term for helping fund militant training in Indonesia's conservative Aceh province.

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.

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

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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

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.

Bashir had been previously jailed over the Bali nightclub bombings, but that conviction was quashed on appeal.

He has repeatedly denied involvement and his exact role remains unclear.

"But he had to have approved it either directly or indirectly," said Jakarta-based security analyst Sidney Jones.

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

Indonesian security forces largely dismantled JI in the years after the 2002 attacks, and a subsequent 2005 bombing on the holiday island.

There have been signs of the network's resurgence in recent years, although Bashir's influence has waned, Ms Jones said.

"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 South-East Asian nation's overcrowded prison system.

The cleric refused to renounce his extremist views in exchange for leniency when the government considered releasing him early two years ago.

The plan was shelved after a backlash at home and in Australia, which lost 88 of its citizens in the Bali attacks.

News of Bashir's release brought back the "horror of the memories" for Jan Laczynski, 51.

Mr Laczynski was drinking with friends at the Sari Club before flying back to Australia. Hours later, five of his friends were among the hundreds killed as a string of huge bombs ripped through the district.

"It hurts me a lot. I wanted to see justice done," he told AFP from Melbourne.

"There are still people even next week having operations for their burns; people are still suffering."

Thiolina Ferawati Marpaung suffered permanent eye injuries after she was hit by glass from the massive explosions, that also killed scores of Indonesians and holidaymakers from more than 20 countries.

"His release makes me feel uneasy," the Bali resident said.

"I pray [Bashir] will become a better person after he is released... Still, I hope authorities will watch him carefully."

Bashir's son, Abdul Rohim, described his father as a "victim" of extremist ideology, but said the family would try to soften his hardline views.

"It's going to be difficult to restrict who he'll meet with later though because we don't want to create the impression that the family has put him back in prison again," the Islamic school teacher said.

Mr Laczynski urged authorities to make sure Bashir is not afforded any platform to spread his violent message.

"He hasn't changed in jail, if anything he's got worse," he said.

"He will always be preaching his evil and this evil has to stop."

Several JI members implicated in the attacks were later executed or killed in confrontations with Indonesian authorities.

Al-Qaeda-linked JI was founded by a handful of exiled Indonesian militants in neighbouring Malaysia in the 1980s and grew to include cells across South-East Asia.

The extremist group has been blamed for other attacks including a 2003 car bomb at the JW Marriott hotel in Jakarta and a suicide car bomb the following year outside the Australian embassy.

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