Anne Barker – Indonesian President Joko Widodo appears to have backed away from plans to offer early release from jail to the alleged mastermind of the Bali bombings, Abu Bakar Bashir, after a public backlash at home and in countries including Australia.
Less than a week ago, the Indonesian leader indicated the militant Islamic cleric would walk free as early as today – years before his sentence expires – without any conditions on his release.
Under Indonesian law Bashir, who was sentenced to 15 years for terror-related activities, must declare a pledge of loyalty to the state, or formally appeal to the President for clemency, to be eligible for release. Bashir has consistently refused to do either.
President Widodo justified his decision to release Bashir on humanitarian grounds, citing his old age and frail health. But after a public backlash, including strong objections from Australia, Indonesia announced a review of the decision.
And now Mr Widodo – or Jokowi, as he is popularly known – has declared the firebrand cleric will not be freed unless he meets the legal conditions.
Caught between a rock and a hard place
The President's apparent backdown makes it far less likely Bashir will be freed at all. And it highlights the political dilemma Jokowi faces as he seeks a second presidential term at national elections in April.
Despite opinion polls that put him clearly in front, the President faces formidable opposition from hard-line Islamic parties that have sought to undermine his own Muslim credentials.
So, when the Indonesian leader announced Bashir was in line for release, he no doubt hoped it would appeal to conservative Islamic voters in a country increasingly divided on religious grounds.
No grounds for release
Bashir has served only nine years of an original 15-year sentence for terrorism, after he was convicted of organising a jihadist training camp in Aceh. But now 81, he is reported to be frail and in ill health.His son Abdulrohim Bashir said Bashir had painful osteoarthritis and swollen veins requiring medical attention that was not available in prison. Strictly speaking, there are no legal grounds for his release.
And the angry backlash to Jokowi's decision appears to have taken the President by surprise. By Monday his Government had announced a review of Bashir's suitability for release.
Given the timing – three months out from the election – it is difficult not to see the decision as politically motivated.
"We know that Joko Widodo is deeply anxious at the possibility of Islam being used against him," said Greg Fealy, an Associate Professor in Indonesian politics at the Australian National University.
"He is under pressure for supposedly using criminal sanctions against Islamic scholars.
"It is clear from statements by people on his team that they are portraying the release of Abu Bakar Bashir as proof that he really has the interests of Islamic scholars at heart.
"They're spinning it for the President's political benefit. The fact that he seems to have done this in a legally questionable way would just deepen their suspicion that he's doing this for his own political benefit, rather than for concern for an ageing Islamic scholar, albeit a convicted terrorist."
Experts said it was not even certain that Mr Widodo would gain any political mileage from the militant cleric's early release, given even hard-line groups have also criticised the decision.
"I don't think Joko wins a single point from the hard-line Islamists," said terrorism expert Sidney Jones, director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, in Jakarta.
"Joko is pandering to that element and wants to get that vote. But they're not buying into any of the strategies that he has embarked upon to try and win them over."
Indeed, Dr Jones questioned whether Bashir was even sick. "He isn't suffering from any critical emergency," she said.
"There's nothing to suggest that his life is suddenly threatened, or that he's so ill that he's not likely to last more than a few months.
"He looks pretty strong actually. If he needed release on humanitarian grounds, why didn't the President grant his release when petitions were submitted a year and a half ago?
"Why wait till just a few months before the election, and why not wait till after the election if there isn't an emergency?"
Dr Jones said the decision appeared to have been based on bad advice from presidential legal adviser Yusril Izha Mahendra, who for more than a decade was also an adviser to Bashir.
"Maybe part of the problem is that his own team is in such disarray that he didn't hear opposing voices, or didn't seek to consult with other voices," she said.
Tensions with Australia
Accusations he acted out of political expediency have led to comparisons with Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who endured sharp criticism over his announcement ahead of last year's Wentworth by-election that Australia's embassy in Israel might be moved to Jerusalem.
Indonesian government ministers were among many critics who attacked the Australian leader's decision as rash and politically motivated.
Where Mr Morrison was accused of pandering to Jewish voters, Mr Widodo is wooing Islamists ahead of an election where religious divisions could decide the outcome.
"Has Jokowi just done a ScoMo?" tweeted Ross Taylor, president of Australia's Indonesia Institute.
Little surprise then if Mr Widodo ignores Mr Morrison's criticism of Bashir's possible release, in the same way that Australia warned against Indonesian interference on the embassy decision.
A commentary piece in the Jakarta Post accused Jokowi of double standards on the issue, urging the President to "listen to the tearful protests of the families of those butchered by the terrorists in Bali and in other places in Indonesia".
Mr Morrison has warned Australia will protest if Bashir is released early, urging Indonesia to show respect for the victims of the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings that killed 88 Australians.
Bashir's son has said his father has long been misunderstood and deserves to be released.
"He cannot be linked to terrorism," he said. "What he did was to preach Islamic values to people. Some of his students committed terrorism. I don't agree with the opinion that if a student makes a mistake, the teacher and the school should be blamed."