Indonesia’s announcement that it would release 80-year old Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, the spiritual leader of the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), after serving two-thirds of his 15-year sentence for supporting a terrorist training camp in Aceh, took many by surprise. JI was responsible for string of attacks around in Indonesia, including the 2000 Christmas Eve church bombings and 2002 bomb attack in Bali that claimed 202 lives.
The decision to release Ba’asyir was certainly a very strange one. It is not unusual for Indonesia to release prisoners who are of good behaviour and have served three quarters of their sentence (reduced by the many remissions available in the Indonesian system). After all, Australian drugs offenders Schappelle Corby and Renae Lawrence both benefitted from the laws that allow this.
But it is very unusual to give early release to an unrepentant terrorism offender who refuses to swear loyalty to the Indonesian republic. Ba’asyir, consistent with his life-long commitment to Islamic revolution in Indonesia, reportedly refuses to do this, even though the law generally requires it for terrorist convict to be eligible for early release (see, for example, Minister of Law and Human Rights Regulation 3 of 2018).
Ba’asyir’s lawyers therefore asked President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to issue a special presidential decision to override the law in Ba’asyir’s case for “humanitarian” reasons. Why did Jokowi agree to do this, as was announced on 18 January?
His decision can only be understood in the context of the presidential election campaign now underway ahead of elections on 17 April.
The Jokowi campaign and the coalition of parties that support his bid for re-election are deeply concerned to protect him from the allegations of being insufficiently Islamic. These come mainly from conservative Muslim supporters of Jokowi’s opponent, Prabowo Subianto. These slurs were deployed against Jokowi when he first campaigned for the presidency in 2014, when he was even accused of being a closet Christian, and of Chinese descent.
This was why his coalition forced on Jokowi a running mate he did not really want, Ma’ruf Amin, the highly conservative head of the peak national Islamic body, the Indonesian Council of Ulama (MUI).
All this gave traction to calls for Ba’asyir’s release, which has been urged on Jokowi by Yusril Ihza Mahendra. As well as being the chair of a small Islamic political party, PBB (the Crescent Star Party), Mahendra is one of Jokowi’s lawyers and an advisor to his campaign.
It is just as important that the release from prison of Basuki Tjahaya Purnama, known as Ahok, the ethnic Chinese Christian former governor of Jakarta was scheduled to occur today. He has now served his two-year sentence for blaspheming Islam during his failed campaign for re-election in 2016.
Ahok was deputy to Jokowi, when Jokowi was governor of Jakarta, and the two are still closely associated in the minds of many voters, even though Jokowi abandoned Ahok to his fate long ago. It seems Jokowi’s campaign thought that releasing notorious Islamist Ba’asyir might counter the attacks on Jokowi that Ahok’s release will likely trigger.
In these circumstances, it is not surprising that vice presidential candidate Amin welcomed the decision to release Ba’asyir, saying it showed a “high regard for humanitarianism”.
In fact, the decision fits a pattern – Jokowi has gradually developed a reputation for being willing to do almost anything to secure votes, and for being not all that concerned about legal process.
But this time he seems to have gone too far in his anxiety to defend himself from hardliner critics. Not everyone around Jokowi was happy with his bizarre decision to give special treatment to a committed enemy of the Indonesian state, a leading propagandist for extremist violence who pledged allegiance to the so-called Islamic State in 2014.
In particular, Indonesia’s powerful Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs, former general and former armed forces chief Wiranto, seemed to spit the dummy. He announced on 21 January that he would ‘coordinate a review of all aspects’ of the proposed release, at Jokowi’s request – doubtless a request made only after huge pressure from Wiranto and his supporters.
At a press conference on Monday night, Wiranto emphasised the need for his review to consider the national ideology, Pancasila, and the “unitary state of Indonesia”, and the law. This suggested to many observers that the government was preparing for an embarrassing backflip.
Sure enough, on 22 January, Jokowi announced that, while he will wait for the results of the review, he will no longer support early release for Ba’asyir if he refuses to swear loyalty to Indonesia and the Pancasila – even though this refusal was the very reason why a special presidential decision was proposed in the first place.
This debacle is a reminder that while Islamist hardliners have been highly effective in exploiting the Ahok debacle and the hyper-charged atmosphere of a national election campaign, there are still powerful nationalist forces within government who have always regarded them as an existential threat.
The armed forces have sometimes flirted with Islamists but they are ultimately unwilling to tolerate challenges to the integrity of the republic and the Pancasila, which they see as co-identical and inviolable.
Jokowi’s campaign seems have miscalculated badly. Rather than cleverly pre-empting attacks on their candidate, they have guaranteed them, while also embarrassing him and exposing deep rifts in his government.