Watched 24 hours a day on closed circuit television and cut off from all but his immediate family, life has become a lonely existence for aging terrorist leader Abu Bakar Ba’asyir since he was moved to a new maximum-security jail south of Jakarta two years ago.
It is a far cry from the five years he spent at the Nusakambangan island prison off the Central Java coast where he was the center of attention, had a constant stream of visitors and was even photographed pledging allegiance to the Islamic State (ISIS) terror organization.
Gunung Sindur, northwest of Bogor, now has more than 100 terrorist detainees, but only about 12 to 15 who have been convicted, including two militants serving terms for a January 2016 gun and bomb attack in downtown Jakarta that left eight people dead.
Another 64 hard-core convicts are being held in single cells at the refurbished Pasir Putih super-max prison on Nusakambangan and work is nearing completion on a third, US-funded facility, known as Karanganyar, which will house up to 500 high-risk prisoners and is modeled on Louisiana’s Pollock federal penitentiary.
Security for terrorist suspects, long a source of concern, was tightened significantly after it was discovered that ISIS leader Aman Abdurrahman, a Ba’asyir protégé, had plotted the 2016 Jakarta attack from inside Nusakambangan. He is now awaiting execution.
Ba’asyir spends most of his time in an isolation cell, apart from an hour a day when he is permitted to shuffle around a small sun-lit garden enclosure. There are no newspapers and no television allowed, leaving him with only a well-thumbed copy of the Koran.
Nothing goes unnoticed. According to witnesses, the CCTV hook-up is linked to the Jakarta headquarters of the Detachment 88 counter-terrorism unit and to a security office at the Coordinating Ministry for Political Legal and Security Affairs.
Ba’asyir’s lawyer, Yusril Mahendra, wanted to take him away from all this to the comforts of the family home of his two sons whose visits have become less frequent because of the 560 kilometers between the prison and Solo in Central Java, where Ba’asyir once ran the notorious Ngruki boarding school.
But that is not going to happen now. President Joko Widodo cancelled his decision to release the 80-year-old cleric after he refused to pledge his loyalty to the Unitary State of Indonesia and the Pancasila state ideology, with Ba’asyir saying he only answered to God.
Government sources complain that Mahendra, a lawyer for both Ba’asyir and the Widodo campaign team, jumped the gun by announcing the release plan on the night of January 19 when the president was on an overnight trip to the West Java town of Garut.
State Secretary Pratikno, a close Widodo confidante, was the first to raise the issue with the president, who told him at the time that he had yet to sign anything. Over the next 24 hours, the palace was hit by a “sea of emails” protesting the pending decision.
Surprised as anyone else, National Police chief Gen Tito Karnavian, a former Detachment 88 commander, summoned concerned counter-terrorism officers and assured them that from his understanding the decision was not yet final.
Mahendra, a former state secretary and founder of the sharia-based Crescent Star Party (PBB), had waited until Ba’asyir had completed two-thirds of his sentence — the point at which prisoners can normally seek parole — to push his case on humanitarian grounds.
The jihadi ideologue is serving a 15-year term for funding a terrorist training camp, but he has benefited from regular sentence reductions because he was convicted before the government introduced a 2012 regulation restricting remissions for convicts serving time for terrorism, drug trafficking and corruption.
Ba’asyir is suffering from chronic venous insufficiency, a pooling of the blood in the legs brought on by diabetes, and spent time in hospital in 2017 for degenerative heart problems. Officials say Widodo has been worried about how it would look if he died in prison.
Mahendra joined the Widodo campaign team as legal adviser last November in a move which surprised some in the president’s inner circle. PBB, denied a parliamentary seat in the last two elections, was aligned with opposition candidate Prabowo Subianto in the 2014 elections, but is currently not part of either coalition.
The lawyer, who admits he has not spoken to Widodo since the controversy erupted, slipped out of a January 23 birthday celebration for ruling Indonesian Democrat Party for Struggle (PDI-P) leader Megawati Sukarnoputri only minutes after the president arrived.
Sources on Widodo’s campaign team acknowledge the Ba’asyir release plan is further evidence of the president’s sensitivity to sniping from Islamic conservatives that he is un-Islamic and a closet communist, even though Prabowo has so far steered clear of bringing religion into the race.
Much of it stems from his shock over the mass demonstrations in late 2016 and early 2017 which ended the promising political career of his ally, Jakarta governor Basuki “Ahok” Purnama, and condemned him to a two-year prison term for blasphemy.
Analysts believe that by paroling Ba’asyir he was seeking to balance the release of the popular Christian Chinese figure, who was whisked away from the Police Mobile Brigade Detention Center in a private car on January 24 without talking to reporters or a crowd of well-wishers.
“We have tried to convince him (Widodo) that he doesn’t have to worry about the Muslim vote,” says one official, pointing to internal palace polls which show him still leading by 18-20%. ”We have told him that he must pay more attention to lifting the hopes of the people.”
His aides are working on ways to manage the president’s emotions, which flared uncharacteristically on several occasions during last week’s first presidential debate.
Prabowo and running mate Sandiaga Uno have signaled that the niggle will continue, but aimed at economic issues, not religion.