Human Rights Watch today called on senior Indonesian government officials to immediately cease efforts to discredit reports of rapes of ethnic Chinese women during riots in Jakarta in May. In a new report titled "The Damaging Debate On Rapes of Ethnic Chinese Women," the organization said the debate raging on whether or not rapes had occurred was obscuring other issues, including the extent to which the May rioting was organized, the fact that sexual violence other than rape occurred, and the need to make Indonesia a society where people of all ethnicities felt secure.

The government statements are based on the fact that to date, not a single victim of the May rapes has reported an attack to the police, despite reports of rights advocates that more than 100 rapes took place. Advocates say the women in question are traumatized by the assaults themselves and subsequent intimidation, and, in some cases, have fled the country. Officials accuse nongovernmental groups of fabricating their data. Human Rights Watch said those accusations would only serve to further discourage any witness from giving testimony to a government-appointed fact-finding board.

"If it was difficult to persuade victims, their families, or their doctors to come forward before, it's going to be almost impossible now," said Sidney Jones, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. "Who would want to testify, thinking no one was going to believe them anyway?"

The Human Rights Watch report notes that ethnic Chinese women have many reasons for not going to the police, including a long history in Indonesia of police extortion of ethnic Chinese and a widespread belief that security forces were involved in the May violence. It also notes that reports of rape of women in Aceh, in nothern Sumatra, during military operations there in 1990-91 are only now coming out now, seven years or more after they took place.

Human Rights Watch acknowledges that there have been problems with some of the data collected because of the chaotic circumstances in which reports came in but said rights groups were doing additional verification and going back, where possible, to the original source. It said that once verification was complete, the numbers would probably drop below the figures initially reported. The organization stressed, however, that the key issue was not numbers, but how and why violence occurred and how it can be prevented in the future. It also called on the Indonesian government to invite the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women to visit Indonesia to meet with officials and rights advocates and explore these issues further.