- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 14, 2006

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Authorities released militant cleric Abu Bakar Bashir from prison today, and about 150 of his supporters jubilantly greeted him with shouts of “God is great.”

The 68-year-old cleric, who is accused of being a key leader of the al Qaeda-linked Southeast Asian militant group Jemaah Islamiyah, had served 26 months in prison for extending his blessing to the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings, which killed 202 persons, most of them foreign tourists.

Bashir’s supporters gathered at Jakarta’s Cipinang prison for his release, which came about 45 minutes earlier than expected.,” they shouted.

His release raised concerns among Indonesian officials that he could energize the country’s small, Islamic radical fringe.

Bashir, who has maintained that he is not guilty, plans to return to his school and retake his position at the head of his legal hard-line Islamic organization, the Council of Mujahedeen for Islamic Law Enforcement.

Indonesia’s intelligence chief said he hoped that Bashir would cooperate with counterterrorism investigators now that he is a free man.

But the Bush administration criticized the release. It also sparked disapproval by Australia.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the United States was “deeply disappointed by what we consider a light sentence handed out to this individual.”

Mr. McCormack said the decision to release Bashir was up to the Indonesian courts, but added that the sentence did not match the severity of the crime as described by Indonesian officials themselves.

In Sydney, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said today that he was disappointed by Bashir’s release and was concerned that he could advocate further violence.

“I have some concerns about his advocacy; there’s no question of that. This is somebody who believes in the jihadist principles, if I could put it that way,” Mr. Downer said in an interview with Sky News.

Indonesia’s State Intelligence Agency chief Syamsir Siregar said the Council of Mujahedeen for Islamic Law Enforcement was used by militants linked to Jemaah Islamiyah as a “place for their struggle.”

“We hope Bashir, after he has been jailed, will regain his self-awareness and be willing to cooperate with us,” Mr. Siregar told lawmakers.

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 in October. The attacks killed more than 260 people.

Bashir has little active support in Indonesia, where most people follow a moderate form of Islam.

But some mainstream clerics and government officials have expressed sympathy for him, saying he is a victim of foreign meddling. Domestic press outlets often play down his suspected links to Jemaah Islamiyah.

Staff writer David R. Sands contributed to this article from Washington.

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