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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 June 2006, 04:32 GMT 05:32 UK
Bali bomb cleric freed from jail
Abu Bakar Ba'asyir emerges from prison - 14/6/06
The cleric's voice was drowned out by supporters' cheers
A Muslim cleric convicted over the 2002 nightclub bombings on Indonesian island Bali, which killed 202 people, has been released from prison in Jakarta.

Abu Bakar Ba'asyir was found guilty in March 2005 of conspiracy in connection with the bomb plot, but he was cleared of more serious charges.

Security experts say the cleric is a founding member of a regional Islamic militant group Jemaah Islamiah (JI).

Supporters gathered outside the prison, cheering as he left the building.

Australia, from where many of those killed in the Bali nightclub bombs came, has said it is disappointed by the cleric's release.

The BBC's Rachel Harvey, in Jakarta, says Ba'asyir emerged into bright sunlight and a crowd of supporters, police and journalists.

I will continue to fight to uphold the Islamic Sharia. I thank Allah that I am free today
Abu Bakar Ba'asyir

He was freed about one hour ahead of schedule, surprising many - including his lawyer, who did not arrive at the jail until his client had been whisked away.

He was thought to be travelling straight to his home town of Solo, in central Java, where he runs an Islamic school.

Wearing his trademark white skullcap and thick spectacles, the elderly cleric tried to give a brief speech, but his voice was barely heard among the shouting, our correspondent adds.

"I will continue to fight to uphold the Islamic Sharia," he said, thanking Allah and his lawyers for continuing to support him, the Associated Press reported him as saying.

With the crowd becoming increasingly excited, a group of young men formed a human barrier to allow Ba'asyir to move through the sea of jostling people towards a waiting car.

Back to teaching

Ba'asyir was first arrested shortly after the Bali nightclub bombings in October 2002, although he was never accused of taking part in the attack.

A car carrying Abu Bakar Ba'asyir
Supporters crowded round as Ba'asyir was bundled into a car
Two bombs ripped through the Kuta area of Bali, a regular haunt for tourists, destroying a nightclub and killing mainly foreigners.

Ba'asyir was held in custody and faced two separate trials, eventually serving two separate sentences, the first for minor immigration offences, the second for being part of what the court called an "evil conspiracy".

In both cases more serious charges were either dropped or later overturned on appeal.

Indonesian and foreign intelligence agencies believe Ba'asyir was, and perhaps still is, the spiritual leader of radical network JI.

Our correspondent says Ba'asyir's power lies in his ability, as a charismatic preacher and teacher, to provide encouragement - and some would argue ideological justification - for violence.

However, many experts believe his influence within JI has waned, and the situation has changed hugely since he was imprisoned.

JI's network is fractured, split between those who espouse violence as part of what they say is legitimate and necessary jihad, and those who believe in a longer term struggle requiring patient proselytizing and military preparation, our correspondent says.

Survivors' outrage

Members of JI are accused of being behind a number of operations in Indonesia, including two suicide attacks in Jakarta and the 2002 and 2005 Bali bombings.

But most of these attacks took place while Ba'asyir was in prison and he denies JI even exists.

He claims he was the victim of an American-inspired plot to undermine Islam.

The 68-year-old cleric has said that once released he planned to return to the boarding-school he founded and to continue teaching.

Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer said he feared that Ba'asyir could now incite further violence.

Mr Downer said that Australia and the US regard Ba'asyir as an extremist and want his travel restricted and financial assets frozen.

Survivors of the bombings have expressed their outrage and frustration that Ba'asyir has walked free after just two years in prison.

"I think the Indonesian government need to have a good look at themselves," Peter Hughes, who survived with burns to 56% of his body, told the Associated Press.

But Mr Downer said that Canberra accepted the decision of the Indonesian legal system.

The BBC's Phil Mercer in Sydney says the Bali bombings brought Australia to the front line of international terrorism for the first time, hardening the government's resolve to fight alongside the US in its war on terror.

See the crowds that greeted Abu Bakar Ba'asyir

Profile: Abu Bakar Ba'asyir
13 Jun 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Abu Bakar Ba'asyir's legal saga
13 Jun 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Jemaah Islamiah split but still deadly
03 Oct 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Verdict leaves no-one satisfied
03 Mar 05 |  Asia-Pacific
The Bali bombing plot
02 Oct 03 |  Asia-Pacific
The Bali bombing suspects
24 Aug 04 |  Asia-Pacific


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