A radical Muslim cleric linked to the 2002 Bali bombings has been freed amid concerns over his ongoing influence on extremists.
Abu Bakar Ba’asyir was picked up by his family from a jail outside Indonesia’s capital Jakarta early on Friday.
The 82-year-old is the former head of Jemaah Islamiah, an al-Qaeda-inspired group behind the attack that killed 202 people.
Authorities say he will enter a deradicalisation programme.
People from 21 nations died in the blasts on 12 October 2002 on the popular holiday island of Bali. The two bombs had ripped through Paddy’s Irish Bar and the nearby Sari Club in the Kuta tourist district.
It remains to this day Indonesia’s deadliest terrorist attack.
The release has drawn mixed reactions in Indonesia as well as Australia, where most of the victims were from. Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison said it was “distressing” for victims’ families and that “it’s sometimes not a fair world”.
The firebrand preacher was freed after completing a jail term for a conviction unrelated to the bombings.
He had been sentenced to 15 years in jail in 2011 for supporting militant training in conservative Aceh province, but the term was later cut due to sentence reductions. Officials reportedly said he had “served his punishment well”.
Previously Ba’asyir had been jailed in 2005 for conspiracy over the Bali bombings, but this conviction was overturned on appeal.
He has always denied any involvement in terrorism.
Ba’asyir was commander of Jemaah Islamiah (JI), the militant Islamist group, at the time of the Bali bombings.
Some described the cleric as the “mastermind” behind the blasts but his exact role remains unclear.
Sidney Jones, director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict in Jakarta, said operational decisions were headed by someone else in JI but Ba’asyir would have given a “de-facto green light”.
“He didn’t plan it. But he is the person who could have stopped it if he said no.”
Ba’asyir later broke off with JI, going on to found another extremist group, Jamaah Anshorut Tauhid.
Ahead of the cleric’s release Garil Arnandha, whose father was among the bombing victims, told the BBC: “I don’t agree with Abu Bakar Ba’asyir being released because in my opinion he is still very dangerous and has the potential to revive terrorism in Indonesia.”
Endang, his mother, had a different view.
“As a bomb victim I have forgiven him,” she told the BBC.
“He has served time in jail for his crimes and I really hope he will return to the right path. I am worried but I am trying to have positive thinking because the trauma of losing my husband in the bombing has been horrific.”
In Australia, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Ba’asyir’s release was “very distressing” for relatives of those killed, but added it was “a matter for the Indonesian justice system”.
“That doesn’t make it any easier for any Australian to accept that, ultimately. That those who are responsible for the murder of Australians would now be free,” he said.
Eighty-eight Australians were among those who died in Bali.
Albert Talarico, a spokesman for the Coogee Dolphins rugby league club in Sydney that lost six members in the nightclub bombings, said it was “very frustrating for the families” who had to “live through the same painful memories again”.
“I don’t believe he should be released, but that’s their rules,” added Mr Talarico, speaking to the BBC earlier this week. “It doesn’t seem to be fair to the families.”
The club honours the six members who lost their lives each day – through the Coogee Dolphins emblem that was changed to reflect their position numbers, and during matches when these numbers are proudly displayed on the team jerseys.
“We carry their numbers on our chests in every match. They were young men in the prime of their lives. We make sure their stories are not forgotten,” Mr Talarico said.
Dr Jones told the BBC she didn’t think Ba’asyir’s release would have a major impact on the risk of violence in Indonesia.
“I think he will be treated as an elder statesman by conservative Muslim groups that would like to see greater Islamic law in Indonesia. But I don’t think he is likely to inspire a new round of violent extremism,” she said.
That’s partly down to his waning influence but also the change in how extremists operate today, she added.
“We’re seeing less influence of individual clerics and more inspiration and instruction taken from the internet,” Dr Jones explained. “We’re also seeing the proliferation of very small autonomous cells, not large hierarchical organisations that look to a single leader.”
After the Bali attacks, Indonesia – backed by Australia and the United States – set up an elite anti-terrorist unit that weakened JI.
In 2008 three men were executed for their role in the bombings, and several others have either been jailed or killed by the security forces.
Ba’asyir is reported to have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in 2014 while in jail.
The head of Indonesia’s anti-terrorism agency Eddy Hartono has said the octogenarian would undergo a deradicalisation programme.
“We’re hoping Abu Bakar Bashir after he’s free can give peaceful, soothing preachings,” he said in a statement, according to Reuters news agency.