Heroes’ welcome for Jakarta terror suspects

The govt’s part in freeing the two nabbed in Manila plus its plan to pardon another fuel fear that it is going soft on terror.

Two Indonesians detained in the Philippines for more than a month on suspicion of terrorism returned home yesterday to a heroes’ welcome as the government set in motion a plan to pardon Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Bashir.

Both developments drew speculation once again that the government was going soft on terrorism.

In the case of Abu Bakar, legal loopholes and fears of a backlash from Muslim hardliners, were enough for the authorities to push for a pardon just a week after threatening to jail him for a 17-year-old conviction for subversion.

Justice Minister Yusril Ihza Mahendra, who made the recommendation for a presidential pardon to Ms Megawati Sukarnoputri on Thursday, said that it was difficult to charge the militant cleric given that subversion laws were repealed two years ago.

He said the government had pardoned those convicted under a 1963 anti-subversion law but had overlooked Abu Bakar who had fled the country.

‘All political prisoners convicted under the law have been released,’ he told reporters. ‘Therefore it would be strange to make an exception in this case.’

Prosecutors had indicated last week they would arrest the cleric for a nine-year jail term imposed in 1985 as soon as they were given official permission.

Abu Bakar was accused of being involved with a group called the Komando Jihad that was fighting to set up an Islamic state in Indonesia.

He is presently suing the Singapore Government for libel for saying he was a leader of an international terror group.

Mr Yusril said that he had met the Attorney-General and the national police chief on Abu Bakar’s case and had given the proposals to Ms Megawati to consider.

Well-placed sources said that the palace and security authorities were keen to put Abu Bakar behind bars and had mooted the idea of doing so by resorting to his old conviction.

But this subsequently backfired after they realised that they did not have strong legal grounds to do so.

A bigger concern for Ms Megawati, however, is the reaction it could generate from Muslim radicals if Abu Bakar is convicted. The domestic repercussions for pardoning him would be fewer.

‘It would be counterproductive for the President to put him in jail on the basis of a old charge,’ said a palace source.

‘It is not good for her image, especially with Muslim hardliners who would try hard to politicise the issue.’

Observers said Abu Bakar might exploit the situation to ‘bask in the media limelight’ if Jakarta acted against him.

The legal loopholes meant that the government had little choice but to back down from arresting him.

But military sources said that Abu Bakar was being placed under constant surveillance by the security apparatus.

Even then, some doubted whether Jakarta was really serious in going for the jugular against him.

Fear of domestic repercussions would force it to take a ‘soft approach’ – as was also the case for the two detained Indonesians in the Philippines who were released at Ms Megawati’s request reportedly under pressure from politicians at home.

Hundreds of waiting Muslim activists shouted ‘God is Great’ and ‘Welcome Back Our Heroes’ as Tamsil Linrung and Abdul Jamal Balfas arrived at Jakarta’s Sukarno-Hatta airport yesterday.

Two of them, together with another Indonesian, were arrested at Manila airport on their way to Bangkok on March 13, after explosives were allegedly found in Tamsil’s luggage.

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