Jakarta - Indonesian President Joko Widodo is reviewing a decision to grant unconditional release to a jailed radical Muslim cleric linked to the 2002 Bali bombings after a hail of criticism from politicians, security officials and neighbouring Australia.
Widodo had declared last week that Abu Bakar Bashir, 81, would be freed on humanitarian grounds, citing his old age and poor health. A legal adviser to the president said the cleric would be granted unconditional release, but on Monday chief security minister, Wiranto, said that move was being reviewed. "The president has ordered related officials to immediately conduct a deeper and more comprehensive examination to respond to the request," Wiranto, who like many Indonesians uses only one name, said in a statement.
Bashir was the spiritual leader of Jemaah Islamiah (JI), an Islamist group blamed for the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings that killed more than 200 people. Most of the victims were tourists, including 88 Australians.
Bashir was convicted in 2010 under anti-terrorism laws for links to militant training camps in Aceh province and jailed for 15 years.
Although linked to the Bali attacks and a bombing at Jakarta's Marriott Hotel in 2003, Bashir was never convicted for them and has denied these ties.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has urged Indonesia not to show leniency for Bashir.
"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 anyway able to influence or incite anything," Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters in Cairns in northeastern Queensland on Monday.
SUSPECTED POLITICAL MOTIVE
Widodo has also come under fire at home, where critics accuse him of trying to win over religious conservative voters ahead of a presidential election set for April 17 in the world's largest Muslim-majority country.
Some members of the ruling coalition, including officials in Widodo's own party, fear the move could alienate moderate Muslim and non-Muslim voters.
"Everyone is asking: 'How can we possibly allow this?'" said an official from Widodo's Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP). "Now it's about how many votes we will lose, not gain."
Most opinion polls have given Widodo a double-digit lead over rival Prabowo Subianto, a retired general who had also contested the presidency in 2014.
Opponents and hardline Islamists have repeatedly attacked Widodo's Islamic credentials, and have accused him of "criminalizing clerics". During the 2014 campaign for the presidency, Widodo had to battle false rumours that he was a communist and not a Muslim.
In a move to shore up Muslim support this time, Widodo picked for his running mate an Islamic cleric.
Still some analysts doubted whether releasing Bashir early would win Widodo many votes among conservative Muslims.
Security and government officials, who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the issue, said they backed the plan to release Bashir to avoid the risk of him dying as a martyr in jail, but felt doing so without conditions was risky.
"That security consideration trumps any political consideration," said one security official.
Another official said the government was considering "postponing the release" and placing Bashir under house arrest, adding that although Widodo had consulted counter-terrorism forces, they were surprised by the timing of the announcement.
Convicts eligible for early release are required to pledge loyalty to the state and secular state ideology, the Pancasila, and not to repeat their crimes. But Bashir's lawyers say his client has refused to do so.
Waiving these fundamental requirements for Bashir would set a dangerous precedent, Indonesia-based terrorism expert Sidney Jones told Reuters.
"It risks turning him into even more of a hero because it's like he has succeeded in defying the state," she said, adding that the episode could damage Widodo's image. "The end result is that Widodo ends up looking weak, out-manoeuvred and poorly advised."
Bill McNeil, an survivor of the 2002 bombings, told The Australian newspaper that he found the prospect of Bashir's release hard to understand.
"It seems sort of crazy they will execute people for drug offences but allow this guy to go free when (he) has caused so much mayhem and suffering," McNeil, 43, said.Reuters