JAKARTA, Indonesia – A hardline cleric alleged to be a top leader in the Al Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah terror group was released from prison Wednesday to cries of "God is great" from scores of cheering supporters.
Abu Bakar Bashir, 68, had served 26 months for conspiracy in the 2002 Bali bombings, which killed 202 people and thrust Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, onto the front lines of the war on terror.
"I thank Allah that I am free today," a smiling and waving Bashir said after emerging from a scrum of about 150 supporters and journalists waiting outside the gates of Jakarta's Cipinang prison.
"I call on all Muslims to unite behind one goal, that is the implementation of Sharia law."
Australia and the United States, which have accused Bashir of being a key Southeast Asian terrorist, said they were disappointed at his release, as did Australian victims of the Bali blasts.
His freedom has raised concerns that he could energize Indonesia's small, Islamic radical fringe, but few believe the stick-thin, softly spoken cleric will play any direct role in terrorism in the future.
After his remarks to reporters, Bashir boarded a car to the central Javanese city of Solo, where his lawyers say he intends to begin teaching again at the boarding school he founded and which was attended by many of Indonesia's convicted terrorists.
Before the Bali blasts, Bashir was chiefly known for his vocal support of moves to make the secular country an Islamic state and his criticism of U.S. policy toward Muslim countries. He has always maintained his innocence.
Police have no plans to investigate him for past crimes but will keep him and his followers under close observation. Indonesia's State Intelligence Agency chief, Syamsir Siregar, said he hoped Bashir would "regain his self-awareness and be willing to cooperate with us."
The leading expert on Jemaah Islamiyah said she thought his release would not lead to more terror attacks.
"I think he will reinforce anti-Western feelings," said Sidney Jones, the Jakarta-based director of International Crisis Group. "But I don't think he'll necessary push people over the line from radical rhetoric to violence."
Bashir's eldest son, Abdul Rohim, said there was no reason for his father to hold a grudge, because his burdens were a test from God.
"We accept this," he said, adding that Bashir's wife prepared his favorite goat curry dish to welcome him.
The U.S. State Department expressed deep disappointment about what it called Bashir's light sentence despite his being a participant in a "sinister" conspiracy. But department spokesman Sean McCormack noted Tuesday that it is up to Indonesia's courts to interpret their own laws.
Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said Canberra is worried that Bashir will resume preaching of militancy.
"This is somebody who believes in the jihadist principles," Downer told Sky News.
Jemaah Islamiyah is accused of carrying out church bombings across Indonesia in 2000, the 2002 Bali bombings, attacks in the Indonesian capital in 2003 and 2004, and a triple suicide bombing on Bali last October. The attacks together killed more than 260 people.
Bashir was found guilty of blessing the 2002 Bali attacks, but cleared of more serious terrorist charges.
No evidence has ever been presented linking him to the execution, preparation or commission of terrorist attacks, and most analysts agree he had little operational role within Jemaah Islamiyah.
The turnout at the prison on Wednesday was small despite efforts by his supporters to rally a large crowd, and no mainstream Islamic figures or politicians were present, underscoring his isolated following.
In the past, some mainstream clerics and government officials have expressed sympathy for him, saying he is a victim of foreign meddling. Indonesian media rarely dwell on his alleged Jemaah Islamiyah links.
Eight-eighty of the Bali bombing victims were from Australia, and some of the relatives of the dead and survivors expressed disappointment over Bashir's release.
"I think the Indonesian government need to have a good look at themselves," said Peter Hughes, 46, by telephone from the western Australian city of Perth. "This guy is going to cause a lot of trouble. He has a lot of radical people below him who are prepared to do anything for him."
Hughes survived the blasts with burns over 56 percent of his body and shrapnel wounds.
Bashir was arrested amid intense international pressure on Indonesia to crack down on militants as well as often stated fears that the country was a weak link in the region's fight against terrorism.
Since then, it has arrested and convicted more than 150 terrorists, sentencing three to death, winning praise from the international community.