Militant Islamic cleric released from Indonesian prison

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The Independent Online

A reputed top leader of the al-Qaida militant terror group blamed for the 2002 Bali bombings attacks walked free from prison today, and quickly accused the United States of state terrorism.

Islamic cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, 68, was given a hero's welcome by around 150 cheering supporters after finishing a 26-month sentence for conspiracy in the Bali nightclub bombings that killed 202 people, mostly young foreign tourists.

The preacher immediately set off for the boarding school he founded in central Java province, which is notorious for spawning many of the world's most populous Muslim nation's deadliest terrorists.

"The United States is a state terrorist because it is waging war against Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan," he told reporters when asked about US accusations he was a key member of Southeast Asia's Jemaah Islamiyah terror group.

Bashir made the remarks after he stopped for midday prayers in the town of Tegal east of Jakarta. They show he lost none of his trademark anti-US rhetoric during his time in jail.

Earlier, he called for "all Muslims to unite behind one goal" and implement Islamic Sharia law across the world.

The United States and Australia, which also believes Bashir is a key member of Jemaah Islamiyah, said they were disappointed at his release, as did Australian victims of the Bali blasts.

"I think the Indonesian government need to have a good look at themselves," said Peter Hughes, 46, by telephone from the western Australian city of Perth. "This guy is going to cause a lot of trouble."

Hughes survived the blasts with burns over 56 percent of his body and shrapnel wounds.

Jemaah Islamiyah is accused of carrying out church bombings across Indonesia in 2000, the 2002 Bali bombings, attacks in the Indonesian capital in 2003 and 2004, and a triple suicide bombing on Bali last October. The attacks together killed more than 260 people.

Bashir's freedom has raised concerns that he could energize Indonesia's small, Islamic radical fringe by making impassioned speeches at rallies and mosques, but few believe he will play any direct role in terrorism in the future.

Before the Bali blasts, Bashir was chiefly known for his vocal support of moves to make the secular country an Islamic state and his vitriolic criticism of US policy toward Muslim countries. He has always maintained his innocence.

Police have no plans to investigate him for past crimes but will keep him and his followers under close observation. Indonesia's State Intelligence Agency chief, Syamsir Siregar, said he hoped Bashir would "regain his self-awareness and be willing to cooperate with us."

The leading expert on Jemaah Islamiyah said she thought his release would not lead to more terror attacks, but said Bashir was unlikely to help anti-terrorist investigators.

"I think he will reinforce anti-Western feelings," said Sidney Jones, the Jakarta-based director of International Crisis Group. "But I don't think he'll necessary push people over the line from radical rhetoric to violence."

Bashir's eldest son, Abdul Rohim, said there was no reason for his father to hold a grudge, because his burdens were a test from God.

"We accept this," he said, adding that Bashir's wife had prepared his favorite goat curry dish.

The US State Department expressed deep disappointment about what it called Bashir's light sentence despite his being a participant in a "sinister" conspiracy.

Eighty-eight of the Bali bombing victims were from Australia, where Prime Minister John Howard told Parliament he shared the displeasure of many his compatriots over Bashir's release.

"I want them (Indonesia) to understand from me, on behalf of the government, how extremely disappointed, even distressed, millions of Australians will be at the release of Abu Bakar Bashir," Howard said.

Bashir was found guilty of blessing the 2002 Bali attacks, but cleared of more serious terrorist charges, including heading Jemaah Islamiyah, which Indonesian police say received funds from al-Qaida.

No evidence has ever been presented linking him to the execution, preparation or commission of terrorist attacks, and most analysts say he played no operational role in the group's attacks.

However, Indonesian and foreign intelligence officers say he played a key role in setting up JI, and led the group from 1999 until 2002. His al-Mukmin boarding school was attended by many people convicted in terror attacks in Indonesia, and remains notorious for its hardline syllabus.

The turnout at the prison today was small despite efforts by his supporters to rally a large crowd, and no mainstream Islamic figures or politicians were present, underscoring his isolated following.