Indonesia to release Jemaah Islamiah founder from jail next week

Jokowi cites radical cleric's health, among other considerations, for surprise decision

Cleric Abu Bakar Bashir (with cane) with Professor Yusril Ihza Mahendra (in cream shirt) of the Jokowi-Ma'ruf presidential campaign team at the Gunung Sindur prison outside Jakarta yesterday.
Cleric Abu Bakar Bashir (with cane) with Professor Yusril Ihza Mahendra (in cream shirt) of the Jokowi-Ma'ruf presidential campaign team at the Gunung Sindur prison outside Jakarta yesterday. PHOTO: COURTESY OF YUSRIL IHZA MAHENDRA

The Indonesian authorities will release convicted radical cleric Abu Bakar Bashir next week, in a surprise move announced by President Joko Widodo yesterday.

Bashir, 80, has been serving his 15-year prison term since 2011 for funding a terrorist training camp in Indonesia's westernmost province of Aceh.

He is widely regarded as the spiritual leader of South-east Asia terrorist group Jemaah Islamiah (JI) and the mastermind behind the 2002 Bali bombings that killed 202 people, including foreigners. JI was also behind several other deadly bombings in Jakarta.

The JI network, formed in the early 1990s by Bashir, was detected in 2001. Many Singaporean JI members studied with him at a school he set up in Ulu Tiram, Johor. He also radicalised Malaysians, including bomb expert Azahari Husin, who was killed in 2005 by anti-terror police, and Noordin Mohammed Top, who was killed in 2009.

Bashir has shown many times that he is unrepentant about his radical views. In 2016, while challenging his conviction for funding the Aceh camp, he said in court: "The physical and weapons training in Aceh was aimed at defending Islam and Muslims in Indonesia and overseas, and was an obligation Muslims must fulfil because it is God's order."

In 2013, Bashir told his followers that the government is illegitimate because it is based on democracy, which he described as "syirik", or idolatry.

Thus, the move by President Joko to release him amid the ongoing presidential election campaign surprised many people. Mr Joko, asked by reporters yesterday, said the decision had been under consideration since early last year, and that discussions with the national police chief and other top officials took into account security concerns.

  • A lifetime spent nurturing terror

  • • Founder of Al Mukmin Islamic boarding school in Solo, more commonly called Ngruki, known for producing militants.

    • Spiritual leader of South-east Asia-based terror network Jemaah Islamiah that radicalised Singaporeans and Malaysians, apart from Indonesians.

    • A group of his followers was responsible for the October 2002 Bali bombings that killed 202 people, Indonesia's deadliest militant attack.

    • The attack prompted Jakarta to beef up anti-terror cooperation with the United States and Australia.

    • Several militants convicted over the Bali bombings have been executed. Others, including Malaysian Noordin Mohammed Top, were killed in police raids.

    • JI was also blamed for a deadly 2003 car-bomb blast at the JW Marriott hotel in Jakarta and a suicide car-bomb blast in 2004 outside the Australian Embassy.

    • The firebrand preacher later founded Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT), the successor to JI.

    • He was sentenced to 15 years in jail in 2011 for inciting others to commit terror acts and helping to fund a paramilitary training camp in Aceh.

    • In 2016, he was moved from the maximum-security Nusakambangan Island prison in Central Java to Gunung Sindur prison outside Jakarta.

"First of all, (it is) motivated by humanitarian reasons. His health treatment is also included in the considerations," Mr Joko was reported by Kompas TV as saying in West Java.

Professor Yusril Ihza Mahendra, a legal adviser to the Jokowi-Ma'ruf presidential campaign team, said he had lobbied for Bashir's release until the President, popularly known as Jokowi, finally relented.

Prof Yusril noted that the decision complied with prevailing laws, saying the cleric was eligible for a conditional release as he had already served more than two-thirds of his sentence and received remission of his prison sentence three times for good behaviour. Under the law, a convict can obtain parole after serving two-thirds of his jail time.

"If we apply normal conditions, that will be difficult and, therefore, he could not obtain the conditional release although actually he had already exceeded his serving period," Prof Yusril told The Straits Times over the phone. "That is what I had discussed with Abu Bakar Bashir and Jokowi until the issue was solved."

Prof Yusril, who is also the leader of Crescent Star Party - an Islamic party - said the release of Bashir will be unconditional and carried out in a few days, after which he will live with his son Abdul Rahim in Solo, Central Java.

Mr Joko, who is seeking re-election in the April 17 polls, has been plagued by accusations that he is anti-Islam and a communist, mostly circulating on social media.

To boost his Muslim credentials, he picked conservative cleric Ma'ruf Amin, formerly the chairman of the Indonesia Ulema Council and former supreme leader of Indonesia's biggest Islamic organisation Nahdlatul Ulama, as his running mate.


Anti-terror expert Adhe Bhakti of the Centre for Radicalism and Deradicalisation Studies questioned the President's decision.

"It is interesting because he (Bashir) seems to accept the offer (for release) from the government, which he had opposed. He has rejected clemency a few times," Mr Adhe said, adding: "We also need to question how the government benefits from his release."

Correction note: In an earlier version of this article, we reported that the 2002 Bali bombings killed more than 202 people. It should be 202 killed. We are sorry for the error.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 19, 2019, with the headline 'Indonesia to release JI founder from jail next week'. Print Edition | Subscribe