Survivors of Bali Blast Outraged by Release of Militant Islamic Cleric

Australian leaders and survivors of the 2002 Bali bombings expressed outrage and disappointment Wednesday at the release from prison of an Islamic cleric linked to the attacks, Abu Bakar Bashir.

The government said it feared he would resume radical preaching.

Bashir, the alleged spiritual leader of the Al Qaeda-linked Southeast Asian militant group Jemaah Islamiyah, was freed after 26 months in prison for giving his blessing to the 2002 bombings at two nightclubs on the tourist island, which killed 202 people, including 88 Australians.

"It's hard to imagine how a leader of a gang ... can get only two years for orchestrating to kill 200 people and injuring many more," said Peter Hughes, 46, who suffered burns to 56 percent of his body in the attack. "It doesn't make sense."

"I would have liked to see him put away for life," Hughes told The Associated Press by telephone from the western city of Perth.

Brian Deegan, whose 21-year-old son Josh died in the bombings, called Bashir's 26-month sentence "insulting."

"I've never been one who believes in vengeance, but I have been one that has believed that punishment must nonetheless fit the crime and I've never been able to accept that his punishment has come anywhere near that," Deegan told AP from Adelaide.

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Another victim was more circumspect, saying Bashir's punishment was Indonesia's decision.

"Naturally, it's disappointing," said Julian Burton, who also suffered extensive burns in the bombing. "You look at it and say, if it happened here in Australia it would probably be a vastly different outcome."

But, "They made their decision at the time to sentence him for a crime that he committed. It was on their soil, it's their decision."

Prime Minister John Howard said he, too, felt disillusioned at the news of Bashir's release.

"Many Australians will see that particular outcome ... as an extremely disappointing result," Howard told Parliament, adding that he shared that sentiment.

Bashir, who has maintained his innocence, plans to return to his school and retake his position at the head of his legal hardline Islamic organization, the Council of Mujahedeen for Islamic Law Enforcement.

Speaking just before Bashir's release, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said he was worried that Bashir would resume preaching militancy.

"I have some concerns about his advocacy, there's no question of that," Downer told Sky News. "This is somebody who believes in the jihadist principles."

The United States, Australia and other Western countries regard Bashir as a terrorist, and want his travel restricted and his financial assets frozen.

Bashir was arrested amid intense pressure on Indonesia to crack down on Islamic radicals, but was initially sentenced only to a short prison term for immigration violations.

On his release, he was re-arrested and sentenced to 30 months for giving his blessing ahead of the Bali bombings. No evidence has ever been presented linking him to the execution, preparation or commission of terrorist attacks.