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Indonesia

Radical cleric Abu Bakar Bashir will be free to ‘preach hate’, Australia warns Indonesia

  • President Joko Widodo’s move to release the 81-year-old is seen by some as an attempt to court the Muslim vote ahead of general election
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 January, 2019, 4:01pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 January, 2019, 11:15pm

Australia’s prime minister on Tuesday denounced Indonesia’s move to grant radical cleric Abu Bakar Bashir an early release from prison, a day after the country’s chief security minister appeared to walk back the decision, saying it would be reviewed.

At a hastily arranged press conference on Monday, Wiranto, a former general now serving in President Joko Widodo’s cabinet, said Bashir’s release would need to be considered in the context of Pancasila, the state ideology that stresses national unity despite ethnic and religious diversity, and the law. Bashir had become eligible for early release after serving two-thirds of his 15-year sentence, but he refused to sign a document stating he would be loyal to Pancasila, a requirement for his early release.

“The president instructs relevant authorities to immediately conduct a more thorough and comprehensive assessment of his release,” Wiranto said.

Australia had been in top-level discussions with Indonesia since last week when Widodo announced he would free the ailing 81-year-old spiritual leader of the bombers who attacked nightclubs on Bali in 2002, killing 202 people, including 88 Australians.

Bashir was not convicted for the Bali bombings but was sentenced to jail for 15 years under anti-terrorism laws in 2010 for links to militant training camps in the province of Aceh, on the island of Sumatra. He founded Jemaah Islamiah splinter group Jamaah Anshorut Tauhid, which in 2011 was blamed for a suicide bombing of a Christian church in central Java.

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Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Australia would protest if Bashir were released early.

“I would obviously be very disappointed about that – like other Australians would – and will register that disappointment and quite strong feelings about that,” Morrison told a radio station in Cairns.

“We don’t want this character able to go out there and incite the killing of Australians and Indonesians, preaching a doctrine of hate,” Morrison added.

Widodo pitched his decision last Friday as one made on humanitarian grounds. The cleric’s lawyer, Muhammad Mahendradatta, met reporters on Monday and said he would ask for Bashir to be released on Wednesday, though he claimed the cleric had rejected the time frame, out of concern his release would be seen as political manoeuvring ahead of the April 17 presidential and legislative elections.

Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, has been criticised by his opponents for not protecting Islamic scholars, who are respected in Muslim-majority Indonesia.

“[Bashir] needs to pack up and clear up his things in prison like his books so he needs one to two days. He is also not well and needs to exercise, which is why he has a stationery bike in his cell … it’s a hassle to pack these things,” the lawyer said.

Gerindra, the political party of presidential contender Prabowo Subianto, slammed Widodo’s decision, describing it as a bid to gain Islamists’ votes, while The Jakarta Post newspaper described it as “poorly timed, legally flawed and insensitive”.

Security analyst Sidney Jones, director of Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, said Widodo’s decision would embolden those who saw democracy as incompatible with Islam, a point Bashir had been arguing his whole life. The legal grounds of the decision were murky and the timing was peculiar, she said.

“Why did he choose to act now, when it was inevitable that he would be accused of trying to score political points or to buffer the impact of the release this week of Ahok, the Christian governor of Jakarta whom the Islamist right brought down? He could easily have waited a few months,” she said.

While Bashir walking free was unlikely to suddenly increase the risk of terrorism or impact Indonesia’s counterterrorism efforts, it would allow the cleric to preach the virtues of jihad and endorse violence by others.

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“His lawyers say he will be under no restrictions, and the man has lost none of his mental faculties or speaking ability. Even if he just sits at home, which is unlikely, he will have streams of well-wishers – including as many as three generations of extremists – coming to pay their respects and ample opportunity to encourage their militancy,” Jones added, in a piece for Sydney-based think tank The Lowy Institute.

Mahendradatta on Monday said Bashir would return to his family in the city of Solo and his lawyers would monitor his movements. Bashir’s youngest son Abdul Rohim, who was at the side of his father’s lawyers, blamed foreign media for spreading rumours that Bashir was involved in the Bali and other bombings.

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“Other countries must respect Indonesia’s legal process. To us, this is slander from abroad … we demand Australia, the United States, Singapore and other countries stop deceiving public opinion in their countries against Abu Bakar Bashir,” said Abdul Rohim, who set up a splinter group from his father four years ago to fight for sharia law in Indonesia.

Additional reporting by agencies