JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — An Islamic cleric who was the ideological leader of the Bali bombers and other Indonesian militants is being released early from a 15-year prison sentence after the country's president relented on a condition that he renounce radical beliefs, lawyers confirmed Saturday.
Abu Bakar Bashir had previously been ineligible for parole because of his refusal to recognize the secular government's authority. He insists he is only answerable to God and that Indonesia should be governed by Islamic law.
His planned release comes during campaigning for a presidential election due in April in which opponents of President Joko Widodo have tried to discredit him as insufficiently Islamic.
Lawyer Yusril Ihza Mahendra, chairman of an Islamic political party and adviser to Widodo's re-election campaign, said at a news conference Saturday that he had brought the issue of Bashir's imprisonment to Widodo, who was able to "respect" Bashir's beliefs and ease the conditions of his release.
"The president put aside the ministerial regulations," he said. "In terms of law, the ministerial regulation was a policy so that the president as the highest policy maker could override the ministerial regulation."
Widodo announced Friday that the 80-year-old Bashir, who is in frail health, would be released on humanitarian grounds. The date of his release hasn't been announced, but it is expected to happen within days.
The firebrand cleric was arrested almost immediately after the 2002 Bali bombings. Most of the 202 people killed in the bombings were foreigners, including dozens of Australians, leaving a deep scar on that country.
But prosecutors were unable to prove a string of terrorism-related allegations, and Bashir was instead sentenced to 18 months in prison for immigration violations.
In 2011, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison for supporting a military-style training camp for Islamic militants. Bashir, an Indonesian of Yemeni descent, was also a founder of an Islamic boarding school in the central Javanese city of Solo that terrorism experts regarded as a factory for violent extremists.
The Bali bombings were a turning point in Indonesia's battle against violent extremists, making heavy security a norm in big cities and forging closer counterterrorism cooperation with the U.S. and Australia.
Australia urged Indonesia last March against any leniency toward Bashir when the Indonesian government was considering house arrest and other forms of clemency. News of the cleric's imminent release has sparked outrage and renewed grief among Australians.
"It's not a good feeling," said Bali bombing survivor Daniel Mortensen. "For me personally, I'm not happy about it. And for me personally — (he's a) terrorist."
"These people that just go around in these radical groups inflicting pain on the world shouldn't be let out as far as I'm concerned. I believe in an eye for an eye really," Mortensen said. "So it's disappointing to hear that he's being let out, and apparently for political reasons, by the Indonesian president."
Bashir's lawyer, Muhammad Mahendradatta, who is also a lawyer for Widodo's challenger in the presidential election, former Gen. Prabowo Subianto, said the release is a legal process and shouldn't be politicized.
"Abu Bakar Bashir's release was based on humanitarian reasons and based on acceptable reasons according to law," Mahendradatta said Saturday. "Abu Bakar Bashir also experienced illness for which he should have been released and hospitalized."
Last year, Bashir was being treated for pooling of blood in the legs, a common condition in old age known as chronic venous insufficiency.
"Stunned that he is about to be released," said Jan Laczynski, an Australian who lost five friends in the 2002 bombing of the Sari Club in Bali and narrowly avoided being at the venue himself.
"Truly devastating news, as effectively he gets on with his life whilst everyone else suffers from seeing him walk out of jail," he said.