Indonesia Overturns Conviction Against Militant Cleric Abu Bakar Bashir

Indonesia overturned a terror conviction Thursday against militant Islamic cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, who served 2 1/2 years for conspiracy in the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings that killed more than 200 people.

The Supreme Court ruling is likely to anger the United States and its regional ally Australia, both of which publicly accused the aging cleric of being a top leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, an al-Qaida-linked Southeast Asian terror group.

Bashir, 69, who was released from prison in June, has long claimed that the government in the world's most populous Muslim nation succumbed to pressure from the West when it arrested him soon after the Bali attacks.

Bashir's son, Abdurrahmin, said his father had received word of the verdict.

"Thank God the Supreme Court has finally revealed the final truth," he said by telephone from Bashir's hometown on Java island. "He is praying now to say thanks to God that his prayers have been accepted."

Thursday's ruling was in response to an appeal filed during Bashir's imprisonment.

Supreme Court Chief Judge German Hoediarto told reporters he had decided to quash the conspiracy conviction following testimony from 30 witnesses, but gave no more details. A written verdict will likely be made public soon.

The 2002 Bali bombings that killed 202 people, mostly foreign tourists, were the first in a string of attacks in Indonesia targeting Western interests, with 2003 and 2004 blasts at the Australian Embassy and the J.W. Marriott Hotel and triple suicide bombings on Bali last year.

Bashir has always denied any wrongdoing, but admits having known several Southeast Asian militants in the 1980s and 1990s who went to Afghanistan and trained there at Al Qaeda-run camps.

Since his release, he has preached in towns across the country, espousing fiercely anti-American and anti-Jewish views and promoting his campaign to transform Indonesia's secular state into an Islamic one.

"Finally Abu Bakar Bashir has achieved justice," said his lawyer, Wirawan Adnan. "We are happy to hear of this verdict. There is no longer any more pressure from foreign governments."

It was unclear whether the cleric would seek damages.

Bashir's conviction was based on the testimony of a militant sentenced to death for his involvement in the Bali bombings who later retracted it, saying he had been tortured by police.

Bashir has little active support in Indonesia, where hardline Islam is not popular, but he has received sympathy from some mainstream clerics and government officials, who view him as a victim of foreign intervention in the country's internal affairs.

Indonesia has arrested more than 200 militants since the Bali attacks, of which five are awaiting execution. Despite the roundup, local and foreign intelligence agencies say the risk of more attacks remains high.

The U.S. Embassy in Jakarta warned this week that there was a "serious security threat to Americans and other Westerners in Indonesia" over the holiday period, saying terror targets could include hotels, malls, businesses, housing compounds, places of worship and schools.

Most the 190 million Muslims in Indonesia are moderate, but it has grappled with Islamic extremists in recent years, fueled in part by anger over the U.S.-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.