Wednesday, June 14, 2006 Posted: 1405 GMT (2205 HKT)
SOLO, Indonesia (CNN) -- Controversial Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Ba'asyir has been released after 26 months in an Indonesian jail Wednesday, completing his prison sentence for giving his blessing to the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings that killed more than 200 people.
Ba'asyir's release was greeted by hundreds of supporters outside the prison. He is expected to travel by car to his hometown, a small village outside Solo.
Australia and the United States consider Ba'asyir to be the spiritual head of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a militant Islamic organization with ties to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda.
The 69-year-old cleric, who was a teacher at an Islamic school in Solo, Indonesia, before his arrest, denies any connections with JI. Those who were convicted in the 2002 bombings -- and several other attacks in Indonesia -- came from his school.
Ba'asyir has been in jail since shortly after the nightclub bombings, although he was not convicted of involvement with those attacks until 2005. Prior to that, he was jailed on immigration violations.
Ba'asyir was accused of connections with other bombings in Indonesia, but was acquitted because of lack of evidence.
The U.S. State Department called Ba'asyir's prison term a "light sentence" and said it was disappointed with the ruling.
Reading from the court decision, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the United States did not think a person convicted of a "sinister conspiracy to cause a fire or explosion resulting in deaths" should have received such a light sentence.
"That said, it is up to the Indonesians and the Indonesian courts to interpret their own laws," McCormack said.
"So ultimately these kinds of decisions rest with Indonesia, the Indonesian people and the Indonesian courts."
Australia's Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said he would have liked the cleric to have spent more time in jail.
But he has told Sky News that the Indonesian government would be bound by an agreement with the United Nations that imposed a number of restrictions on Ba'asyir including freezing his assets and banning him from obtaining weapons.
"They are good steps forward but the fact that he will be released is obviously a disappointment for us but we accept the Indonesian legal system's decision," Downer said.
Critic's of Ba'asyir, however, are concerned the cleric may use his freedom to make fiery speeches to inflame militants in Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim nation.
The sprawling archipelago has been hit by a string of bombings since 2000 that have killed more than 260 people.
While some analysts worry that Ba'asyir's release could spark more terrorist attacks, a leading expert on Jemaah Islamiyah does not agree.
"I don't think it makes much difference whether he's released or stays in prison," Sidney Jones, the Jakarta-based director of International Crisis Group, told the Associated Press.
Ba'asyir already communicated by cell phone with members of Jemaah Islamiyah while in prison, she said.
"I think he will reinforce anti-Western feelings ... but I don't think he'll necessary push people over the line from radical rhetoric to violence."