Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch today called on the Indonesian authorities to hold military leaders accountable for gross rights abuses in Aceh.
The first major human rights trial in Aceh ended today with guilty verdicts against 24 soldiers and one civilian implicated in the killings of Teungku Bantaqiah - a Muslim cleric and teacher - and over fifty of his students and followers in July 1999. The two organizations welcomed Indonesian government efforts to hold members of the security forces accountable for the atrocity, but expressed serious misgivings about the trial process and the absence of military commanders among the defendants.
"The trial shows the Indonesian government's resolve to put an end to military impunity in Aceh and this is an important step forward," the organizations said. "But it is a seriously flawed beginning. Commanding officers were not charged and key witnesses failed to appear. Future human rights trials must address those weaknesses."
The organizations emphasized the government's failure to prosecute commanding officers. Of the 24 members of the military on trial, none was above the rank of captain and the majority were privates or non-commissioned officers. The evidence that was presented at trial told a grisly tale of an attack on a religious compound which left 34 dead and the subsequent premeditated execution of 23 students who had been injured in the initial raid.
Soldiers testified that they had been ordered by their commanding officer to "school" the youth, a term the soldiers said was used by local commanders as a euphemism for killing a detainee. The commanding officer in question, Lt. Colonel Sudjono, originally named as a key suspect in the massacre, has been missing for several months and was not present at the trial. Another officer, Lieutenant Colonel Syafnil Armen, who appeared as a witness and admitted to having ordered troops to bring back Teungku Bantaqiah, dead or alive, was not charged. The Indonesian military had accused Bantaqiah of supporting the Acehnese armed separatist movement.
Prison sentences of between eight-and-a-half and ten years were handed down to the 25 defendants.
"If the justice effort in Aceh is to be credible, the most senior culpable officers must be brought to justice," the international rights groups said. "The exclusive focus on junior ranks weakened the legitimacy of the trial among Acehnese observers and among observers elsewhere in Indonesia. It suggests that the government is still unwilling or unable to take decisive action against higher level military leaders. To the extent this presents a foretaste of what the East Timor trials will look like, it does not bode well."
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch also emphasized that key eyewitnesses to the massacre did not give testimony during the trial. Lt. Colonel Sudjono, as mentioned above, mysteriously disappeared and did not testify. Members of Teungku Bantaqiah's family refused to appear as witnesses, apparently because of misgivings about the way the trial was being conducted and because of fears for their security. The younger of Teungku Bantaqiah's two wives, who claimed to have witnessed the attack, was reported in the local media on 30 April 2000 as saying that she wanted to testify but had not been summoned. After making this statement, she reportedly received threats and fled Aceh seeking protection.
The international rights groups recommended that a witness protection and support program be implemented immediately in Indonesia, and called for any such program to include protections for witnesses before, during, and after the trial, for so long as threats to security remain. Although past trials in Indonesia have often been marred by reports of intimidation and harassment of witnesses, there is currently no witness protection program in the country.
"In Aceh, where the security forces have a powerful presence and a long record of literally getting away with murder, the potential for intimidation is particularly high," the organizations concluded. "Donors and other countries committed to assisting the justice effort in Indonesia should provide funds and expertise to help institute such a program. Such protections will be critical in the future not only for trials in Aceh, but also for the East Timor prosecutions and all other cases in which the defendants come from military and police ranks."
"The level of trust by the people of Aceh in the government is already low," the statement concluded. "If the Acehnese believe that the trials are no more than an exercise in public relations, how can they be expected to place their trust in governmented efforts to solve the problems in the province?"
Twenty-four years ago, a small group of Acehnese declared independence from Indonesia and have been fighting for a separate state ever since. Although armed opposition groups have grown stronger over the past year as exiles returned from abroad and popular support swelled, they have never been particularly respectful of other people's rights and are by no means universally well-liked in Aceh. The situation in Aceh has become far more complex than a simple insurgency, as a broad-based coalition of students, clerics, intellectuals, civil servants, and entrepreneurs — though opposed to the violent methods of the armed opposition group — have become outraged at the government's failure to put an end to the military's dismal record of abuses in the province and now share the insurgents' anti-Jakarta sentiment.
The Bantaqiah massacre, as it has come to be known, is just one of hundreds of cases of alleged abuses against civilians resulting from a decade of counter-insurgency operations in the province. In 1989, guerrillas using weapons acquired largely from raids on military posts within Aceh carried out a series of attacks on soldiers and non-Acehnese migrants to the region. In ensuing years, the Indonesian army responded with ferocious and indiscriminate force, killing more than a thousand civilians, often leaving their mutilated bodies by the side of roads or rivers. Many more were arrested, tortured, and arbitrarily detained for months, sometimes years. Hundreds of men "disappeared". Many women whose husbands or sons were suspected of involvement with the armed opposition were raped.
Although Aceh's status as a military operational area (DOM) was lifted in August 1998, just three months after Soeharto was forced to step down, intensive counter-insurgency efforts continued and new atrocities have continued to come to light, fueling separatist sentiment in Aceh. An accord was signed on 12 May 2000 in Geneva between the government and rebels which provides for a three-month cease-fire to allow for further efforts towards building peace in the province.
The Bantaqiah trial, the most significant justice effort to date, is the first of five planned trials in Aceh. In their statement, the two rights groups called on the Indonesian government to follow the Bantaqiah and the other planned trials with a comprehensive effort to bring perpetrators to justice. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch noted that the success of the peace initiative could well be affected by the seriousness of the justice effort.