Freedom for the smiling Islamist

JAKARTA - Radical cleric Abu Bakar Bashir walked out of a Jakarta jail yesterday after serving time for links to the 2002 Bali bombings, calling on jubilant supporters to join forces for the spread of Islamic law.

Australia's Foreign Minister voiced concern about the release of a man who believes in "jihadist principles" and a United States embassy spokesman said his sentence had been light considering the crime.

Wearing his trademark white skullcap and red-and-white checked shawl as he emerged from prison, a smiling Bashir said: "Let us strengthen Islamic brotherhood. We strengthen our unity for one aim - that is Islamic sharia (law)."

He said that Indonesia and other nations that "have been in darkness" could be saved by adherence to Islamist precepts.

Bashir was surrounded by supporters shouting "Allahu Akbar" (God is great) and journalists before bodyguards managed to get him through the crowd to a black van for a long drive to his Islamic school, once dubbed the "Ivy League" of militants.

Seen by the West as the spiritual head of the al Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah regional militant network, Bashir was convicted of being part of a conspiracy behind the Bali bombings that killed 202 people, many of them Australian tourists.

Southeast Asian and Western authorities blame the group for the Indonesian resort island attack and other strikes.

Hundreds waited outside the jail to welcome him. "We are ready to defend him till the end," Aep Suherman, 37, a member of Bashir's Indonesian Mujahidin Council, said.

But across from the prison, bread seller Chairudin said: "He's too extreme. I am afraid to see so many people here today. I'm afraid of chaos."

Scores of police were on hand and security was tight, but the crowd quickly dissipated once the cleric left.

In Australia, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said he remained worried about Bashir's activities.

"I have some concerns about his advocacy. There's no question of that. This is somebody who believes in the jihadist principles."

However, he said the United Nations had listed Bashir as a terrorist and that imposed obligations on Jakarta, including freezing his financial assets, banning him from international travel and prohibiting him from obtaining weapons of any kind.

US embassy spokesman Max Kwak said: "When Bashir was sentenced in March of last year, we were deeply disappointed that a person convicted of a 'sinister conspiracy' was given such a short prison sentence."

The 67-year-old cleric, who has called al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden a true Islamic warrior, denied any wrongdoing. He insists Jemaah Islamiah does not exist, and Indonesian courts have dismissed charges that he led the network.

Bashir was planning yesterday to take a 12-hour ride to the Al-Mukmin Islamic school he co-founded near the city of Solo, about 480km from Jakarta.

Several graduates of the school, popularly known as "Ngruki" after the neighbourhood where it is located, are in prison for terrorist activities.

Officials say that despite the capture of nearly 300 people suspected of terrorism, militant violence remains a serious threat in the nation of 220 million people, the world's most populous Muslim country.


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