Widodo U-turns on cleric release

Indonesia says an 80-year-old Islamist cleric, seen as the planner of the 2002 Bali bombings, will only be released from jail if he pledges loyalty to the state and its secular ideology, after reports that he would be freed unconditionally sparked criticism from Australia.

President Joko Widodo (pictured) said last week that Abu Bakar Bashir would be freed on humanitarian grounds, because of his age and poor health.

Widodo’s legal adviser said Bashir would be granted unconditional release but the president’s office yesterday (Tuesday) said it would be a “conditional release”.

“Conditions have to be fulfilled like loyalty to the unitary state of Indonesia, to the Pancasila [the archipelago’s secular creed]. That is one of the very basic conditions,” said the president.

Prisoners hoping for release are required to pledge loyalty to the state and Pancasila and vow not to repeat their crimes.

But Bashir’s lawyers say the cleric has refused to follow the requirements. Bashir reportedly insists he is only answerable to God and that Indonesia should be governed by Islamic not civil law.

Bashir was the spiritual leader of Jemaah Islamiah (JI), an Islamist group linked to al-Qaeda and blamed for the 2002 bombing of nightclubs on Bali that killed more than 200 people, including 88 Australians.

In 2008, three men were executed for their role in the Bali bombings and several others have either been jailed or killed by the authorities.

Bashir was convicted in 2010 under anti-terrorism laws for having links to militant training camps in the Sumatran province of Aceh and was jailed for 15 years.

Although blamed for the Bali attacks and a bombing at Jakarta’s Marriott Hotel in 2003, Bashir was never convicted for the bombings and denied any involvement.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison demanded that the cleric should not be shown leniency. Australia is a key trading partner for Indonesia.

“Australians died horrifically on that night, and I think Australians everywhere would be expecting that this matter was treated with the utmost seriousness by our government, which it is,” said Morrison. “But also that the Indonesian government would show great respect for Australia in how they manage this issue.”

“We have been very clear about the need to ensure that as part of our joint counter-terrorism efforts … that Abu Bakar Bashir would not be in any position or in any way able to influence or incite anything,” Morrison told the media this week.

Widodo, who is due to face re-election on April 17, has been accused of trying to win over religious conservatives at the expense of non-Muslims.

In a move to shore up Muslim support, Widodo picked for his running mate an Islamic cleric.

“Everyone is asking: ‘how can we possibly allow this?’,” said a member of Widodo’s Democratic Party of Struggle. “Now it’s about how many votes we will lose, not gain.”

Opinion polls give Widodo a sizeable lead over his rival, Prabowo Subianto, a retired general who ran for the presidency in 2014.


President Joko Widodo is seeking re-election. Picture credit: Wikimedia