A radical cleric linked to the deadly Bali bombings was freed from prison early Friday, Indonesian authorities said, stirring grief and anger among victims nearly 20 years after Indonesia's worst terror attack.
Abu Bakar Bashir, 82, is considered the spiritual leader of militant group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the Islamist network responsible for the 2002 Bali terror attack that killed more than 200 people, most of them foreign tourists.
The firebrand preacher had completed an unrelated jail term for helping fund militant training in conservative Aceh province. But he has long been suspected of involvement in the holiday island bombings, Indonesia's worst terror attack.
A white van with Bashir inside left Gunung Sindur prison around 5:30 a.m. local time, accompanied by members of Indonesia's elite counter-terror squad, Densus 88.
"He was handed over to his family and a team of lawyers who came to pick him up at the penitentiary," national prisons spokeswoman Rika Aprianti said.
Bashir was expected to return to his hometown Solo city in Java later Friday.
Originally sentenced to 15 years in 2011 for funding militants, his term was later cut due to regular sentence reductions handed to most prisoners in Indonesia.
Bashir had been previously jailed over the Bali nightclub bombings, but that conviction was quashed on appeal.
He has repeatedly denied involvement in the attacks and his exact role in the blasts has long been the subject of debate.
Bashir's lawyers had appealed for his release citing his age and risk of contracting Covid-19 in the Southeast Asian nation's notoriously overcrowded prison system.
Bashir has refused to renounce his extremist views in exchange for leniency.
Two years ago, plans to grant him early release on humanitarian grounds sparked a backlash at home and in Australia. Dozens of Australians were killed in the Bali attacks and the early release plan was shelved.
His planned release Friday brings back the "horror of the memories" for Jan Laczynski, 51.
Laczynski was drinking with friends at the Sari Club before flying back to Australia. Hours later, five of his friends were among the hundreds killed in the bomb blasts.
"It hurts me a lot. I wanted to see justice done," Laczynski told AFP from Melbourne.
"There are still people even next week having operations for their burns; people are still suffering."
Several JI members implicated in the attacks were later executed or killed in confrontations with Indonesian authorities.
The 2002 bombings -- and a later attack on the holiday island in 2005 -- prompted Jakarta to strengthen co-operation with the US and Australia in counter-terrorism.
Al-Qaeda-linked JI was founded by a handful of exiled Indonesian militants in Malaysia in the 1980s and grew to include cells across Southeast Asia.
As well as the Bali bombings, the extremist group was blamed for a 2003 car bomb at the JW Marriott hotel in Jakarta and a suicide car bomb the following year outside the Australian embassy.