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Widodo's controversial attempt to release jailed cleric backfires

Bid to woo Indonesia's conservative Muslims only alienates progressives

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who is up for re-election in April, has faced smear campaigns questioning his faith in Islam.   © Reuters

JAKARTA -- Indonesian President Joko Widodo is backing away from a plan to release a radical cleric linked to the Bali bombings in 2002, after the thinly veiled attempt to woo conservative Muslim voters ahead of April's election sparked a backlash from Widodo's progressive supporters.

The president had intended to grant early release to Abu Bakar Baasyir based on "humanity reasons" -- citing the cleric's age and ailing health. The 80-year-old spiritual leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, a regional al-Qaida offshoot, is serving a 15-year prison term for a 2011 conviction for orchestrating training for militants in Aceh Province.

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