SUKOHARJO, Indonesia (Reuters) – Indonesian Islamic cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, the suspected mastermind of the 2002 Bali bombings that killed 202 people, walked free from prison on Friday after serving 10 years for setting up a militant training camp.
Authorities said Bashir, 82, who was never convicted of a direct role in the bombings, would enter a deradicalisation programme amid concerns over his continued influence in extremist circles.
Photographs showed him dressed in white and wearing a mask as he left the prison in Bogor, south of the capital Jakarta, before being driven to his home at an Islamic boarding school near the city of Solo in Central Java.
“Abu Bakar Bashir was released from Gunung Sindur prison at 5.30 a.m.,” Rika Aprianti, a spokeswoman for the corrections department, told reporters.
Bashir, 82, who is regarded as the spiritual leader of Jemaah Islamiah (JI), a jihadist network with ties to al Qaeda, was imprisoned in 2011 for 15 years for his links to a militant training camp in Aceh province.
After periodic cuts in his jail term, he served 10 years.
Although Indonesian police and intelligence agencies say Bashir was linked to the 2002 Bali attacks and a 2003 attack on the J.W. Marriott hotel in Jakarta, he was never convicted of direct involvement and denied any ties.
A conviction for being part of a conspiracy to carry out the Bali bombings was later overturned.
The Bali bombings killed 88 Australians, and the country has pressed Indonesia to ensure Bashir does not incite more violence.
On Friday, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Bashir’s release was “very distressing to the friends and families of the Australians, the 88 Australians, who were killed in the Bali bombings”.
Thiolina Marpaung, an Indonesian wounded in the 2002 attacks, said she wanted authorities to keep supervising Bashir.
“We don’t know what he was doing in prison,” she said by telephone.
Bashir pledged allegiance to the militant group Islamic State in 2014 while in jail.
A spokesman for the Coogee Dolphins rugby club in Sydney, which lost its president and five members in the Bali attacks, said Bashir’s release would be difficult.
“Some will never forgive, there will be others who will be just angry today,” said Albert Talarico.
“Others will stay silent because they don’t wish to have the old wounds opened again.”
Some Indonesians defended the release of the cleric, saying he had served his time and was a practising Muslim.
“There are many people who discredit Muslims, thinking that we are related to terrorism, but…we are not,” said Asqar Kustiwa, 63, a resident of Depok, near Jakarta.
Bashir will undergo a deradicalisation programme, Eddy Hartono of Indonesia’s anti-terrorism agency said in a statement, adding that he hoped the cleric, after his release, “can give peaceful, soothing preachings”.
In the wake of the Bali attacks, Indonesia set up an elite anti-terrorist unit that weakened JI and resulted in scores of suspected militants being arrested or killed.
But other extremist groups have since formed and conducted attacks in the world’s biggest Muslim majority country while only last month police arrested 23 militants.
Ahead of the release, Abdul Rohim, Bashir’s son, told Reuters his father would return to the Al Mukmin Islamic boarding school, which Bashir founded in the 1970s and whose graduates have been linked to militant networks and attacks.
“He has completed his term,” Rohim said. “This is purely over.”
JI’s prominence is fading, say analysts, to be replaced by other Islamic State-inspired groups blamed for new attacks.
They say Bashir does not wield as much power over JI or other groups, but could still influence other militants.
“Bashir is an ideologue, his words will be followed and made examples of,” said analyst Stanislaus Riyanta.
Additional reporting by Agustinus Beo Da Costa in Jakarta, Yuddy Cahya Budiman in Bogor, Adi Kurniawan in Depok and Jill Gralow in Sydney; Writing by Stanley Widianto; Editing by Michael Perry and Clarence Fernandez