There is nothing wrong with granting an old and ailing felon conditional release or even a pardon on humanitarian grounds. But President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s decision to approve the early release of 81-year-old terror convict and firebrand cleric Abu Bakar Ba’asyir is wrong on so many levels.
It is not impossible to pardon the ailing cleric on humanitarian grounds, but the timing and circumstances of the President’s decision are so suspicious that one wonders whether his health condition was a factor at all.
The call came only months before the April presidential election in which Jokowi will square off against his old rival, Prabowo Subianto, in a bid to secure a second term.
Prabowo has been touted as the more Islamic candidate by hardline Islamists, while Jokowi is struggling to convince voters he is not a communist, even after naming the leader of the nation’s most influential Islamic institution as his running mate.
Given the political backdrop, it is too easy to believe the move was just another attempt by Jokowi to win Muslim votes.
Yusril Ihza Mahendra, the lawyer for the Jokowi-Ma’ruf Amin campaign, has dismissed such speculation. Mahendradatta, Ba’asyir’s lawyer, has also claimed that his client’s release has nothing to do with politics, that it is not a “political gift” from Jokowi. The claim is hardly convincing. Ba’asyir’s lawyers had long cited Ba’asyir’s deteriorating health as the primary reason for his release, or him being put under house arrest. The government had ignored the request. So why the change now?
Moreover, the Jokowi administration has been far from transparent in explaining the legal basis for Ba’asyir’s release.
Days after the decision was made public, officials said it was unclear if Ba’asyir was pardoned or granted conditional release. It is hard to say which.
Neither the cleric nor his lawyer have ever sought presidential pardon. The cleric is neither eligible for conditional release, despite having served two thirds of his prison sentence, because he refused to sign a letter of loyalty to the state ideology Pancasila — a requirement for all terror convicts.
Yusril argued Jokowi could just change or “ignore” the policy, as it is only stipulated in a ministerial regulation, not a law. While it is possible to tweak the regulation, one wonders why Jokowi needs to go through all that for Ba’asyir.
This leads to another issue: fairness.
The President has often pledged to not interfere with the law. Only recently, Jokowi cited the exact argument to reject calls for him to grant clemency to a housewife jailed for inadvertently exposing the man accused of sexually abusing her.
Jokowi is also merciless to drug convicts. Last July, a terminally ill Pakistani drug convict on death row died in prison. The man claimed innocence and Jokowi refused to free him despite his health condition and plea for justice.
The President has the prerogative to pardon convicts, but he is obliged to justify his action before citizens. His decision on Ba’asyir was poorly timed, legally flawed and insensitive. It sent all the wrong messages to many of his supporters as well as the international community.