Human Rights Watch today charged that the murder of three men in South Aceh, Indonesia suggested deliberate targeting of human rights defenders by the Indonesian security forces. The men, including a human rights lawyer and a religious leader involved in conflict resolution efforts in Aceh, were killed on Thursday afternoon, shortly after leaving a district police station.

Human Rights Watch called on all governments concerned about the rapidly deteriorating situation in Aceh to demand a full investigation by a commission of inquiry. Such a commission should be set up under the Indonesian National Human Rights Commission and include qualified international experts, the international monitoring group said.

On Thursday afternoon, March 29, the bodies of three men were found in the village of Simpang Tiga Alue Pakuk in Sawang subdistrict, South Aceh. They had all been shot and the wounds were still fresh. Teungku Kamal, 42, was the head of a Muslim boarding school (pesantren) Darul Kamal in Blang Pidie, South Aceh; he was also a member of the team set up to monitor implementation of the "peace through dialogue" agreement between rebels of the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka or GAM) in Aceh and the Indonesian government. Suprin Sulaiman, 37, was a lawyer with the Human Rights Coalition of Aceh. Amirduddin was a driver for the monitoring team.

The three men had left the South Aceh police station about a half hour earlier, according to witnesses. Teungku Kamal had been summoned for questioning as a suspect in a criminal defamation case in which members of the Mobil Police Brigade (Brimob) assigned to South Aceh said they had been falsely accused of raping and otherwise assaulting five young women from that district. Suprin Sulaiman was acting as Teungku Kamal's legal adviser.

As of Thursday evening, it was unclear who precisely was responsible for the murders, but witnesses reported that a vehicle belonging to the security forces had entered the area just before they heard gunshots.

"The military has made it clear for some time that they want the dialogue stopped and killing members of the monitoring team is one way to do it. Senior Brimob officials are clearly angry about the rape accusations. And both army and police have been implicated in previous attacks on human rights and humanitarian workers," Jones noted.

The true story behind the reported rapes that led to the defamation charges remains unclear. In February 2001, several human rights NGOs in Banda Aceh had accompanied five young women ranging in age from fifteen to nineteen to Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, where the accusations of rape by Brimob officers had been widely publicized. In the second week of March, the five were returning home for a Muslim holiday, accompanied by a local human rights monitor. The group spent the night at Teungku Kamal's school. The next day, they were taken into custody by the South Aceh police. The five women were questioned intensively, and then flown by helicopter to Banda Aceh where they were presented at a police press conference on March 9. At the press conference, they said they had been abducted by GAM rebels and forced to claim they had been assaulted. As of March 28, they remained under police "protection" and no NGOs or lawyers had been given access to them. The Indonesian National Human Rights Commission and the National Commission on Women were negotiating with the Indonesian police for them to be turned over to the Women's Commission for protection and counseling.

It is not clear which version of the women's account is true, but the recanting of their accusations against the police while in police custody raises troubling questions.

The murders of Teungku Kamal, Suprin Sulaiman, and Amiruddin are the latest in a series of attacks on human rights and humanitarian workers in Aceh. The most publicized such murder was the August 2000 disappearance in Medan of Acehnese human rights lawyer Jafar Siddiq Hamzah who was found bound and stabbed to death several weeks later together with four other bodies that remain unidentified. Three Oxfam workers were arrested and tortured in August, and in December 2000, three workers for RATA, a nongovernmental organization for the rehabilitation of torture victims were abducted and executed in North Aceh. Four of the suspected killers escaped from detention last Thursday.