Indonesian President Joko Widodo has been forced to reverse his decision to free jailed terrorist leader Abu Bakar Ba’asyir six years ahead of schedule, in a move critics decried as both misguided and legally questionable.

Days after the planned release was announced, presidential chief of staff General Moeldoko said today (January 23) the parole plan had been cancelled because Ba’asyir had refused to sign a pledge of allegiance to Pancasila, the state ideology, and the Unitary State of Indonesia.

Political Coordinating Minister Wiranto had told a press conference 24 hours earlier that Widodo asked him to review the controversial plan, which drew strong protests from both the Australian government and Indonesian commentators.

Corrections Department officials maintained from the outset that under Government Regulation 99/2012, the ailing 80-year-old cleric would have to sign the declaration before he could win his freedom from a prison in Bogor, south of Jakarta.

Ba’asyir’s refusal stemmed from his support for an Islamic state and his rejection of democracy, the same factors which last year led to the government outlawing Hizbut Tahrir, the radical organization which seeks to create an Islamic caliphate in place of an elected government.

Muslim militant cleric Abu Bakar Bashir (C-in white) is guarded by Indonesian elite commandos as he leaves the police headquarters to undergo cataract surgery in Jakarta on February 29, 2012. Indonesia's top court on February 27 upheld a 15-year jail term against Islamist militant Abu Bakar Bashir for terrorist acts, reversing an earlier decision to slash the sentence to nine years. AFP PHOTO / ADEK BERRY / AFP PHOTO / ADEK BERRY
Indonesian cleric Abu Bakar Ba’asyir during a court appearance in Cilacap, Central Java, February 2016. Photo: AFP

Regulation 99/2012 caused prison unrest when it was issued because it places restrictions on sentence remissions and parole for prisoners convicted of terrorism, corruption and drug trafficking and other crimes that pose a threat to the community.

Strangely, the president claims to have spent most of the past year discussing Ba’asyir’s release — and presumably its legal ramifications — with the Justice Ministry and National Police Chief Tito Karnavian, the former head of the Detachment 88 counterterrorism unit.

Former justice minister Yusril Mahendra, who serves as a lawyer for both Ba’asyir and the Widodo election campaign, acknowledged that the loyalty pledge had been a long-standing issue, with Ba’asyir continuing to insist he answers only to God.

Mahendra claimed Widodo merely wanted to “simplify the mechanism,” but critics see it as yet another attempt by the president to curry favor with Islamic conservatives ahead of the April 17 presidential and legislative elections.

They also saw it as an effort to balance the scheduled release of former Jakarta governor Basuki Purnama, who is due to walk free from Jakarta’s Police Mobile Brigade detention center tomorrow (January 24) after serving a two-year jail term for blasphemy.

Friends say Purnama has a television interview scheduled for Saturday, after which he plans to fly to Vancouver, Canada, at the start of an overseas trip that will keep him out of Indonesia – and away from being an unwanted distraction – until after the elections.

President Joko Widodo on a call. Photo: Pinterest
President Joko Widodo on a call. Photo: Pinterest

Although the final choice was foisted on him by his coalition partners, Widodo’s seeming obsession with the conservative opposition is also the reason why he has been saddled with ageing Muslim cleric Ma’ruf Amin as his running mate.

Amin, who remains chairman of the powerful Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), described Ba’asyir’s release as “our domestic affair” after Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison telephoned Widodo to express his concern over the release.

Now serving a 15-year sentence for funding a jihadi training camp, Ba’asyir was the spiritual inspiration behind Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the regional terror network responsible for the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings which killed 202 people, including 88 Australians.

The cleric was originally sentenced to 30 months imprisonment for his alleged role in the worst terrorist attack since the 9/11 attacks on the United States, but he was later acquitted by the Supreme Court.

The Australian embassy in Jakarta was also the target of a JI orchestrated September 2004 truck bomb attack, which killed 10 Indonesians but could have taken a heavy toll of Australians as well if it had been timed for when they were arriving at work.

Buildings and cars are on fire after a bomb blast in tourist site of Kuta, Bali 13 October 2002. At least 53 people including 10 foreigners, were killed when a bomb exploded in a popular nightclub on the Indonesian resort island of Bali. AFP PHOTO/ DARMA / AFP PHOTO / DARMA
Aftermath of the 2002 Bali bombing. Photo: AFP/Darma

Widodo’s attempts to win over Muslim conservatives even seems to extend to hygiene, with local newspapers reporting that he recently ordered 100,000 bottles of detergent, worth 2 billion rupiah (US$140,600), from a small business in Garut in the battleground province of West Java.

West Java was one of five provinces where Widodo lost to opposition rival Prabowo Subianto in 2014, but he did particularly badly in the deeply Islamic districts of Garut, Tasikmalaya and Sukabumi, gaining only 29-32% of the vote.

Southwestern Java was the birthplace of Darul Islam, an armed movement established in the late 1940s to transform Indonesia into an Islamic state. It later spread to other provinces before the Sukarno government launched a bloody crackdown.

The president said he had decided to free Ba’asyir on humanitarian grounds, given his age and failing health. But the timing in the middle of the election campaign left him open to charges that he is willing to do anything to get re-elected, even though he now leads comfortably in the polls.

Analysts believe the flip-flop will do him more harm than good with hardline Islamists who already saw the release plan as a political ploy and who have accused Widodo of criminalizing clerics, a leap of logic that defies the reason for Ba’asyir’s incarceration.