A radical Muslim cleric linked to the 2002 Bali bombings has been freed amid concerns over his ongoing influence on extremists. Abu Bakar Ba’asyir was picked up by his family from a jail outside Indonesia’s capital Jakarta early on Friday.
The 82-year-old is the former head of Jemaah Islamiah, an al-Qaeda-inspired group that was blamed for the attack that killed 202 people. Authorities say he will enter a deradicalisation programme. People from 21 nations died in the blasts on 12 October 2002 in the popular holiday island of Bali.
The two bombs ripped through Paddy’s Irish Bar and the nearby Sari Club in the Kuta tourist district. It remains to this day as Indonesia’s deadliest terrorist attack. Though Ba’asyir had been linked to the bombings, he was never convicted for the attack. He has denied all charges.
But he was sentenced to 15 years in jail in 2010 for a separate conviction of supporting militants. That sentence has since been reduced, with officials reportedly saying he had “served his punishment well”. Indonesian authorities said he was being released “in accordance to the end of his term”.
The decision has drawn mixed reactions in Indonesia as well as Australia, where most of the victims were from. Ahead of his release Garil Arnandha, whose father was among the victims of Bali bombings, told the BBC: “I don’t agree with Abu Bakar Ba’asyir being released because in my opinion he is still very dangerous and has the potential to revive terrorism in Indonesia.”
Endang, his mother, had a different view. “As a bomb victim I have forgiven him,” she told the BBC.
“He has served time in jail for his crimes and I really hope he will return to the right path. I am worried but I am trying to have positive thinking because the trauma of losing my husband in the bombing has been horrific.”
After the Bali attacks, Indonesia – backed by Australia and the United States – set up an elite anti-terrorist unit that weakened Jemaah Islamiah. In 2008 three men were executed for their role in the bombings, and several others have either been jailed or killed by the security forces.
Sidney Jones, director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict in Jakarta, told the BBC she didn’t think Ba’asyir’s release would have a major impact on the risk of violence in Indonesia.
“I think he will be treated as an elder statesman by conservative Muslim groups that would like to see greater Islamic law in Indonesia. But I don’t think he is likely to inspire a new round of violent extremism,” she said.
Dr Jones puts that partly down to his waning influence but also to a change in how extremists operate in the decade that he’s been in prison.
“We’re seeing less influence of individual clerics and more inspiration and instruction taken from the internet,” she said. “We’re also seeing the proliferation of very small autonomous cells, not large hierarchical organisations that look to a single leader.”
Ba’asyir is reported to have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in 2014 while in jail. Eddy Hartono of Indonesia’s anti-terrorism agency said the octagenarian would now undergo a deradicalisation programme.
“We’re hoping Abu Bakar Bashir after he’s free can give peaceful, soothing preachings,” he said in a statement, according to Reuters news agency.
For those who lost family and friends in the blast the release of Ba’asyir has been a source of distress.
“It’s very frustrating for the families,” said Albert Talarico, a spokesman for the Coogee Dolphins rugby league club in Sydney that lost six members in the nightclub bombings. “They have to live through the same painful memories again.”
“I don’t believe he should be released, but that’s their rules,” added Mr Talarico, speaking to the BBC earlier this week. “It doesn’t seem to be fair to the families.”
The club honours the six members who lost their lives each day – through the Coogee Dolphins emblem that was changed to reflect their jersey numbers and during matches when these numbers are proudly display on the team jerseys.
“We carry their numbers on our chests in every match. They were young men in the prime of their lives. We make sure their stories are not forgotten,” Mr Talarico said.