Cleric with al-Qaida ties freed from Indonesian prison

Abu Bakar Bashir, 68, had served 26 months for conspiracy in the Bali nightclub bombings that killed 202 people.

abu bakar bashir 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
abu bakar bashir 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
A reputed top leader of the al-Qaida linked terror group that has been blamed for the 2002 Bali bombings and other deadly attacks walked free from prison Wednesday to cries of "God is great" from cheering supporters. Islamic cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, 68, had served 26 months for conspiracy in the Bali nightclub bombings that killed 202 people, mostly young foreign tourists. The stick-thin, softly spoken preacher immediately set off for the boarding school he founded in central Java province, which is notorious for spawning many of Indonesia's most deadly terrorists. "I thank Allah that I am free today," a smiling and waving Bashir said after emerging from a group of about 150 supporters and journalists waiting outside the gates of Jakarta's Cipinang prison. "I call on all Muslims to unite behind one goal, that is the implementation of Sharia law," referring to Islamic law. Australia and the United States, which have accused Bashir of being a key member of the Southeast Asian terror group Jema'ah Islamiyah, said they were disappointed at his release, as did Australian victims of the Bali blasts. The Bali bombings thrust Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, on to the front lines of Washington's declared war on terror. Bashir's freedom has raised concerns that he could energize Indonesia's small, Islamic radical fringe by making impassioned speeches at rallies and mosques, but few believe he will play any direct role in terrorism in the future. Police have no plans to investigate him for past crimes but will keep him and his followers under close observation. Indonesia's State Intelligence Agency chief, Syamsir Siregar, said he hoped Bashir would "regain his self-awareness and be willing to cooperate with us." The US State Department expressed deep disappointment about what it called Bashir's light sentence despite his being a participant in a "sinister" conspiracy. Bashir was found guilty of blessing the 2002 Bali attacks, but cleared of more serious terrorist charges, including heading Jem'aah Islamiyah, which Indonesian police say received funds from al-Qaida. No evidence has ever been presented linking him to the execution, preparation or commission of terrorist attacks, and most analysts say he played no operational role in the group's attacks. The turnout at the prison on Wednesday was small despite efforts by his supporters to rally a large crowd, and no mainstream Islamic figures or politicians were present, underscoring his isolated following.