In the aftermath of civilian deaths during military operations in Aceh on Sunday, Human Rights Watch today urged all parties involved in the conflict there to respect basic principles of humanitarian law banning torture and extrajudicial executions. The operations followed a December 29 attack on a public bus carrying soldiers, in which a mob dragged eighteen soldiers off and killed seven of them. In the aftermath of civilian deaths during military operations in Aceh on Sunday, Human Rights Watch today urged all parties involved in the conflict there to respect basic principles of humanitarian law banning torture and extrajudicial executions. The operations followed a December 29 attack on a public bus carrying soldiers, in which a mob dragged eighteen soldiers off and killed seven of them.

Human Rights Watch appealed to the Indonesian government not to turn the troubled region back into a special zone for counterinsurgency operations and urged it to put together a concrete plan for addressing past human rights violations in Aceh. The New York-based organization also urged Jakarta-based embassies to coordinate among themselves and immediately send a joint diplomatic team to Aceh to meet with as broad a range of individuals and organizations as possible, including nongovernmental organizations, academics and students, influential community leaders, and religious leaders as well as officials at the district, subdistrict and village levels. The visit could be an important means of exploring possible solutions to an escalating crisis.

Human Rights Watch's appeal came after a series of violent incidents in East and North Aceh in recent weeks that the army has blamed on the guerrilla organization called Aceh Merdeka (the Free Aceh Movement). They have accused one man in particular, Ahmad Kandang, of being the mastermind. Kandang was deported from Malaysia last year and has been active in organizing pro-independence activities ever since. The local press has reported widespread belief among the Acehnese more generally that some of the incidents have been provoked by elements within the military itself in the interests of maintaining a large troop presence in Aceh, an accusation the army vigorously denies.

But an important factor in the violence is the resentment now boiling over in Aceh at the Habibie government's failure to take concrete steps toward investigating and prosecuting those responsible for massive and systematic human rights abuses during the eight-year period (1990-98) that Aceh was formally a "military operations region." That status, imposed when major counterinsurgency operations against Aceh Merdeka got underway, was only lifted on August 7, 1998. The two districts, East and North Aceh, where the recent violence has taken place, were a particular target of those operations in which thousands of civilians were killed or disappeared, and many more arbitrarily arrested. Expectations that the Habibie government would address the abuses of the past were high following the resignation of President Soeharto in May 1998, but they have gradually been replaced by anger over lack of any serious action.

Background to the Violence

This cycle of violence really began in Lhokseumawe on August 31, when a crowd began throwing rocks at 659 troops being pulled out of Aceh as part of the formal ending of the region's special military status. The incident sparked off several days of rioting in which two youths were killed and 300 offices and shops in Lhokseumawe and surrounding towns were burned or seriously damaged. The army said at the time that someone was using a megaphone to shout "Long live Aceh Merdeka".as the rioting took place; press reports carried stories of local people accusing a sergeant from the subdistrict military command in Bayu as being the "brains" behind the rioting. The army denied the accusation.

The most recent incidents of violence include the following:

On Sunday, January 3, nine people, including a young woman, were reported killed as military operations were taking place in the villages of Kandang, Paloh, and Pusong in Muara Dua subdistrict as well as in the villages of Buluh Blang Ara and Simpang Kramat in Kuta Makmur subdistrict. According to press reports in the Jakarta daily Kompas (January 3, 1998), the military operations were aimed at finding two soldiers taken hostage on December 30. According to the army, their captors belonged to Aceh Merdeka. Army sources said that one of those killed was carrying an AK-47 rifle, but who opened fire and under what circumstances remains unclear. Six of those killed were pronounced dead at the main hospital in the city of Lhokseumawe on Sunday. Another victim was reportedly buried immediately by family members, and two other bodies were brought to the hospital on Monday. In the aftermath of the shootings, a post office, tax office, and subdistrict administrative office in Lhokseumawe were set on fire by angry crowds.

On December 29, seven soldiers were killed in the village of Lhok Nibong, East Aceh by a mob that the army says was led by Aceh Merdeka. The attack took place after a public bus carrying military personnel returning from leave was stopped by a crowd of people in what is locally called a "sweeping" -- a check of identity cards. Those with military i.d.s were dragged off the bus. According to one account, a trader from Lhokseumawe was stopped in his car by men armed with knives and was forced to take five corpses to the Arakundoe river, where the armed men tossed the bodies in. Three of the stabbed and beaten bodies were recovered on December 31; a fourth was found on January 4. A report in the Aceh daily, Serambi Indonesia (January 2, 1998) said that an eyewitness had seen another car with two badly beaten soldiers in it, then still alive, being driven toward the Jambo Aye dam. The two men are also believed to have been killed, although their bodies have not been found. The army said the attack was the work of Ahmad Kandang. Local activists said that the bodies of four of the seven soldiers had been displayed in exactly the same way that the military itself had displayed the bodies of four civilians it killed in 1991, including by hanging one from a tree. Of fourteen people taken into custody by the military in connection with the attack, twelve were reported to have been from North Aceh, i.e. they were not local people.

On December 20, a mob estimated at 1,000 people attacked the subdistrict military post in Bayu, North Aceh -- the same post that figured in the August 31-September 2 violence -- after a sergeant there was accused of having molested a married woman on her way home from tarawih prayers, a form of worship that takes place in the evening during the fasting month of Ramadan. The army said that even the woman's husband admitted she was mentally disturbed, and that the sergeant in question had tried to take her home after she came on her own to the subdistrict command threatening to commit suicide. When the rumor spread that she had been molested by the sergeant, a group of youths tried to attack the military command. The military said it fired warning shots and called in reinforcements from Lhokseumawe. The new troops tried to evacuate the sergeant from the command for his own protection, according to an account in the December 21, 1998 edition of Serambi Indonesia, but the mob surrounded the vehicle they intended to use, so the army opened fire. Two civilians were wounded, both apparently by rubber bullets. A new mob arrived at the military command about an hour later from the village of Simpang Kandang, but were forced back by army fire. On the way back, in Alue Awe village in the Blang Mangat subdistrict, the crowd attacked an army major and his wife, traveling home to Aceh from Medan in their private car. Both were seriously injured. The major's firearm was taken, and the car was burned. Three other men in army fatigues were reportedly stopped at a crowd-operated checkpoint in Simpang Cunda. They too were beaten up and relieved of their weapons, and their car was also burned.

If Aceh Merdeka fighters had a hand in the torture and execution of the soldiers in Lhok Nibong, then they have committed a major violation of international humanitarian law. Clearly any civilians who took part are also responsible for serious crimes and must be punished accordingly. But the depth of local sentiment against the military shows the urgent need for investigation and prosecution of past abuses. Only if the military is held accountable, and is seen to be held accountable, for those abuses, is the cycle of violence likely to end.