Jakarta (AsiaNews) Militant Islamic cleric Abu Bakar Ba'asyir, freed two days ago for good behaviour after 26 months in jail for his complicity in the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings, yesterday described the attack as God's will, and said those who carried out terrorist attacks across Indonesia were "holy warriors".
The cleric criticised US President George W. Bush and Australian Prime Minister John Howard for waging war against Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan, and called on them to "convert to Islam".
Australian Prime Minister John Howard yesterday sent a letter to Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono expressing his country's "distress" over Mr Ba'asyir's release, urging the Indonesian authorities to monitor the cleric's activities.
The Indonesians disagree. Indonesian police chief Sutanto said that placing Ba'asyir under constant monitoring would violate his human rights, this despite the fact that on Tuesday, when Ba'asyir was released, police had announced they would monitor every "incendiary" speech the firebrand preacher might make.
Mr Howard, who is scheduled to meet Susilo at the end of the month, warned that the release of the alleged leader of the al-Qaedalinked South-East Asian terrorist network Jemaah Islamiyah could affect relations between the two countries.
For his part, the Indonesian President reiterated his country's commitment to the fight against terrorism. "Our national efforts to combat terrorism are not measured by the release of Ba'asyir," he said.
Jemaah Islamiah is held responsible for the major terrorist attacks in Indonesia, including the bombings of the Marriot Hotel and Australian Embassy in Jakarta in 2003 and 2004, and a triple suicide bombing in Bali last year that left 20 people dead. In the 2002 Bali bombings 202 people died; 88 of them were Australians.
The Muslim cleric has always claimed his innocence in the affair. Yesterday he described the suicide bombers, who kill in the name of Islam, "holy warriors", but said they were wrong to use bombs in a country at peace. "Why use bombs in a non-conflict zone, preaching is enough."
Asked about families suffering from the Bali blasts, Mr Ba'asyir said the attacks "were God's will" and survivors should "convert to Islam" to ease their pain. However, not all share his views. Many in Indonesia have expressed disapproval upon his release.
Human rights activists have stressed that "the partner to an act that killed hundreds of innocent people is freed after two years, whilst three Christian teachers unjustly charged with 'proselytising' are serving a three-year sentence, and three Catholics are set to be executed after an unfair trial conducted under the influence of Islamic fundamentalists.