(New York) —Human Rights Watch today warned that a declaration of martial law in Aceh could trigger more violence.

"Aceh doesn't need more soldiers in charge, it needs more soldiers on trial," said Joe Saunders, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch.

The Indonesian military and police have been putting increasing pressure on President Abdurrahman Wahid to declare a state of emergency in Aceh. Most government offices have stopped functioning in the province as popular demands for a referendum on independence have escalated and pro-referendum rallies have become almost a daily occurrence. There are widespread fears of unrest on December 4, the twenty-third anniversary of a declaration of independence by Acehnese separatists.

Human Rights Watch welcomed the decision of the Indonesian parliament yesterday to call in senior military officers for questioning about military operations during the early 1990s that resulted in widespread killing, disappearances, torture, rape, and arbitrary arrests. "This process of questioning is a start, but it has to be followed with indictments and prosecutions," said Saunders. "This crisis is not going to be defused unless there is a sense in Aceh that justice has been done, and not just for a handful of cases."

Earlier this month, a special fact-finding commission appointed by then-President Habibie in July announced it had found military culpability in "five spectacular cases. " Indonesia's new Human Rights Minister Hasballah Saad, himself Acehnese, called for immediate prosecution of these cases, but all occurred within the last four years, none address the pattern of systematic abuse that has characterized military operations in Aceh, and military officials have insisted that alleged perpetrators be tried before military tribunals.

"If accountability is to have any meaning, the Indonesian government will have to conduct a comprehensive investigation going back to 1989, and going all the way up the military chain of command," said Saunders.

He noted that a few attacks by rebels belonging to the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka or GAM) had prompted the Soeharto government to declare Aceh a military operations area (derah operasi militer or DOM). That designation lasted from May 1990 to August 1998 and effectively gave the army license to commit human rights violations against the civilian population without fear of sanction.

"Today, a declaration of martial law in Aceh would be the same as reinstituting DOM," Saunders said. "It will mean military impunity, unchecked abuses, and more resentment in Aceh toward the central government. This is not the way to address the crisis."

Movement for an East Timor-style referendum has been building in Aceh since late January, fueled by anger at the unfulfilled promises of the Habibie government to address past abuses. While some local commanders of GAM, an armed insurgency, have supported calls for a referendum, the movement has been overwhelmingly civilian-led and nonviolent. The Habibie government ignored the depth, breadth, and passion of the movement, leading the various civilian groups involved — students and religious leaders in particular — to harden their demands.

In recent weeks, Indonesia's new president, Abdurrahman Wahid, has repeatedly said he supports a referendum in Aceh, agreeing to a vote within seven months, but he has so far not agreed that such a vote would include the option of independence. The Indonesian military, and many within the Indonesian parliament, are adamantly opposed to any referendum at all, fearing that it would lead to the break-up of Indonesia. It is this impasse, between a grassroots-based independence movement and a military determination to stop it, that has raised the spectre of martial law and perhaps major bloodshed.

"At this point, there are no easy solutions to the standoff," Saunders added. "But one thing is clear: the national police and military leadership don't understand the depth of the alienation in Aceh. They continue to act as if armed intervention can re-establish security. Acehnese of every stripe have made it abundantly clear that Indonesian security forces are part of the problem."