Human Rights Watch said today that the arrest of an Acehnese activist on charges of "spreading hatred" and incitement were a throwback to Indonesia's authoritarian past. The international monitoring group called for the immediate and unconditional release of Muhammad Nazar, head of SIRA, a student coalition in support of a referendum on Aceh's political status.

Nazar, was arrested Monday night by police in the provincial capital, Banda Aceh. He is currently detained in the district police lock-up but has access to visits from family members.
"Nazar and other SIRA activists are being punished for organizing a peaceful rally attended by hundreds of thousands of ordinary Acehnese," said Sidney Jones, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. "If this is incitement, Indonesian democracy is in serious trouble."

On November 11, SIRA organized a huge rally in Banda Aceh on the first anniversary of a similar demonstration last year that drew an even larger crowd. To prevent this year's gathering, Indonesian security forces fired on vehicles and boats trying to reach the capital, reportedly killing dozens of civilians. An investigation conducted by Indonesia's National Human Rights Commission concluded that police had often fired directly on individuals, without warning shots.

On November 7, police had summoned Nazar for questioning, requesting him to report to the police station no later than November 9. On the advice of his lawyers, Nazar ignored the summons. On November 10, police raided the office of the steering committee for the rally and briefly detained three committee members. On Monday, November 20, Nazar decided to turn himself in. After hours of questioning, he was detained at the Aceh Besar district police station.

Nazar's arrest marks the first time that the government of Abdurrahman Wahid has used Articles 154 and 155, the so-called haatzai artikelen, or "spreading hatred" articles of the Indonesian Criminal Code, against a political activist. Left over from the Dutch colonial administration, these statutes were used by the Soeharto government to punish free expression, including criticism of Soeharto himself, and to discourage pro-independence activities in East Timor. Human rights lawyers had hoped that in a democratic Indonesia, these articles would be repealed.

An active armed insurgency in Aceh has mounted numerous attacks on police and military personnel, leading government forces to step up counterinsurgency operations. Many unlawful killings and arbitrary arrests have taken place in the process.