December 19, 2003
Every Acehnese we interviewed had a story of abuse to tell. We fear that the abuses we have uncovered against the civilian population may be just the tip of the iceberg.
Brad Adams, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division

(Jakarta)—The Indonesian military in Aceh is pursuing a campaign of killings, “disappearances” and beatings of civilians, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Acehnese refugees interviewed in Malaysia revealed widespread abuses in the Indonesian province, which has been effectively closed to observers since martial law was imposed in May.

The Indonesian government must take immediate measures to stop these serious human rights violations in Aceh. The province should immediately be opened to independent international and national observers, journalists, and humanitarian agencies, both as a deterrent to further abuses and to provide much needed humanitarian assistance to civilians affected by the war.

The 50-page report, "Aceh Under Martial Law: Inside the Secret War," documents violations of human rights and humanitarian law since the Indonesian government imposed martial law in Aceh on May 19 and renewed military operations against the armed, separatist Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, or GAM). Based on testimony from Acehnese refugees in Malaysia, the report documents the role of the Indonesian security forces in extrajudicial executions, forced disappearances, beatings, arbitrary arrests and detentions, and drastic limits on freedom of movement in Aceh.

“Every Acehnese we interviewed had a story of abuse to tell,” said Brad Adams, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division. “We fear that the abuses we have uncovered against the civilian population may be just the tip of the iceberg.”

Witnesses told Human Rights Watch about village sweeps in which civilians were killed, some while being questioned or detained, others while fleeing in fear of mistreatment. Victims and witnesses recounted in shocking detail how Indonesian forces appear to be targeting young men in Aceh.

“I saw one of the soldiers handcuff the ankles of this man, and then another soldier held him by his feet and swung him against a tree,” one young Acehnese man recounted. “The soldier did this many times so that the man’s head was hitting the tree. His brains were coming out of his head, until he was dead.”

Human Rights Watch is concerned that many Indonesian military personnel seem to presume that all young men in Aceh are GAM fighters, and are targeting civilians indiscriminately.

“In case after case, soldiers have gone into Acehnese villages and publicly executed or beat people seemingly at random,” said Adams. “If the aim is to instill fear in the populace, sadly it’s working.”

Human Rights Watch called on the Indonesian military to put an end to ongoing abuses and give the highest priority to ensuring that perpetrators of human rights violations among the armed forces are identified and brought to justice. Although token efforts have been made since the start of martial law in Aceh to hold soldiers accountable for human rights violations, the Indonesian government continues to have a dismal record in addressing abuses during past military campaigns in Aceh, East Timor and elsewhere in the archipelago.

“It is time for the Indonesian military to take its responsibilities seriously to follow international law in its conduct of war,” said Adams. “Establishing accountability for human rights abuses in Aceh and ensuring that the perpetrators are brought to justice are essential if the decades-long conflict is to be resolved. It is also necessary if Indonesia is to regain credibility with the international community.”

Although unable in its interviews with refugees in Malaysia to document abuses by GAM, Human Rights Watch remained concerned at possible abuses being committed by the armed separatist group. Human Rights Watch urged GAM to act in accordance with international humanitarian law, and called on the armed group to not take actions that place civilians at special risk, such as kidnappings, or confiscations of identity cards for use by GAM combatants.

Human Rights Watch welcomed the Indonesian government’s decision this month to allow access to Aceh by the International Committee of the Red Cross and United Nations humanitarian agencies. Human Rights Watch called on the government to go further by opening Aceh to independent monitoring, including by international organizations, and allowing Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) and local human rights organizations to carry out fact-finding investigations.

Human Rights Watch urged the international community, in particular the “Quartet” (the United States, European Union, Japan and the World Bank), to more forcefully to register concern about a war that has taken place behind a veil of secrecy.

“It is time for the international community, led by the Quartet, to insist upon unfettered access for diplomats, journalists, human rights monitors and humanitarian aid agencies,” said Adams. “Aceh needs to be top priority in the international community’s dealings with the Indonesian government and should be raised at every meeting.”

Human Rights Watch called on countries providing military assistance or training to Indonesia to consider a moratorium on all arms transfers to Indonesia. Military assistance should also be conditioned on clear progress in bringing to justice military and police responsible for current and past human rights violations.

The current Indonesian military offensive in Aceh began on May 19 after a six-month ceasefire failed to resolve the longstanding conflict in the province. The Aceh offensive is Indonesia’s largest military campaign since the country’s invasion of East Timor in 1975. The operation involves an estimated 30,000 troops, who are opposed by an estimated 5,000 armed members of GAM.

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